Education

Building Bridges

October 01, 1990 6 min read
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He enrolled in the rigorous academic program and showed such promise that its organizers helped him win a scholarship to a private middle school, where he attended the 8th grade. Last year, he earned a scholarship to Phillips Exeter Academy, the private boarding school in Exeter, N.H. Had he attended his local high school in San Francisco, where he feared exposure to drugs and gangs, he would never have been so academically challenged, he says.

This past summer, Son was back at the Summerbridge program, teaching math and writing to a new crop of students, many of whom come from economically disadvantaged families like his own.

University High School is one of a growing number of independent schools nationwide that are forging stronger ties with the public school system through partnerships and special summer or weekend programs for disadvantaged students in the surrounding community.

“I have been delighted to see the independent school movement break down the sense of elitism it has,’' says Peter Esty, headmaster of San Francisco University High School. “It is a very big wall between public and independent schools. Public schools don’t want to give in to the idea that they can learn from private schools. And private schools can still be smug.’'

In addition to Summerbridge and a handful of other programs in the San Francisco area, collaborative efforts between public and independent schools include these:

In New York City, 25 partnerships have been established between private and public schools in all five city boroughs, says Gardner Dunnan, headmaster of the Dalton School, an independent school in Manhattan. Dalton is paired with PS 130 in Chinatown, where 90 percent of the students have arrived from mainland China during the last four years. The partnership has included joint staff training and student exchanges. “It’s a partnership, not an act of philanthropy,’' Dunnan says.

In Connecticut, more than 100 public school students from throughout the state come each summer to Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford for five weeks of advanced study in math, science, and the humanities. Last year, Choate was also the cosponsor of the first national forum on public-private school collaboration.

In Michigan, the “HorizonsUpward Bound’’ program at the Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills marked its 25th anniversary this year, making it one of the oldest public-private school collaborative efforts. The program is for public high school students from low-income families in the Detroit area, who receive teaching and counseling in the summer and on weekends. “A good independent school,’' says Ben Snyder, director emeritus for the program, “must have something to offer for the public good.’'

The National Association of Independent Schools estimates that there are some 200 to 300 similar collaborative efforts under way. In recent years, many established programs have been copied by other independent schools around the country. Teachers are often the link; they attempt to replicate collaborative efforts they have heard about or worked with elsewhere.

For example, when Alec Lee left Michigan and took a teaching job at Lick-Wilmerding High School, another independent school in San Francisco, he began “Aim High,’' a program modeled on Horizons-Upward Bound but designed for middle school students.

The Lick-Wilmerding program serves about 85 at-risk students in grades 7 through 9, 90 percent of whom are from minority groups. The students attend an intensive fiveweek summer school and then meet bimonthly during the school year. “Our mission is to strengthen academic skills for at-risk middle school students and to give them options,’' says Lee. “We really push kids to go on to strong academic high schools.’'

Unlike Lick-Wilmerding, which stands near some of the impoverished city neighborhoods where many students in the Aim High program live, San Francisco University High School is nestled among the posh Victorian homes of the city’s affluent Pacific Heights neighborhood.

Opened only 15 years ago, it has acquired a reputation as one of San Francisco’s best private schools. Summerbridge was created in 1978 as a summer-enrichment program for bright 6th and 7th graders from the area. “We created Summerbridge to intersect with the city more directly,’' says Dennis Collins, the founding headmaster of University High.

When Summerbridge is in session, the school’s classrooms and courtyards take on a different look. The preppy, upper-middle-class students, whose parents can afford the $9,200-ayear tuition, give way to about 100 public and parochial middle school students, who attend the program free of charge. These students take five academic classes each day during the six-week session, plus two electives. They are also given homework assignments that add two to three hours of work each night.

“I had a choice of either Summerbridge or day camp,’' says James Fogarty, a 13-year-old who was in a gifted program at a public middle school. “You learn so much more so quickly here.’' This fall, he is attending University High School on a scholarship.

Summerbridge is open to the “best and the brightest’’ students who, its backers say, might not otherwise get a taste of rigorous private school academics. The students generally find out about Summerbridge through presentations to gifted-andtalented classes at their schools or by word of mouth. Any student may apply, but the program is highly selective. Some 250 6th graders applied for just 50 places this year. (Students must make a two-year commitment. A third year, called “Newbridge,’' costs $625.)

Racial and ethnic diversity are key goals of the admissions process. The breakdown of students has generally been 25 percent white, 25 percent black, 20 percent Asian, 18 percent Hispanic, and 10 percent Filipino, roughly representative of the city at large.

The program has gained national attention for its most unusual characteristic--the use of high school and college students as its regular teachers. After a one-week training workshop, the young teachers are turned loose to design their own curriculum.

The high school-age teachers mostly come from University High, while the college slots are sought by students from around the country. This is not because of the pay. The college students get a stipend for the summer of only $500, despite workdays that typically run 12 hours or more. “I felt I owed a huge debt,’' says Son, explaining why he returned to teach instead of taking a more lucrative summer job. “I look at it as if I am passing along information to my younger brothers.’'

Son is typical of the success the program has had in its principal goal of getting students into academically superior high schools. Since the program began in 1978, more than 90 percent of participants have enrolled in top academic high schools.

The issue of whether such programs exist to skim top students from the public schools is a sensitive one, but Summerbridge officials say that is not their purpose. “The public schools here are competitive already,’' says program director Lois Loofbourrow. “We only try to transfer kids into private schools who we feel would benefit.’'

Public school officials have not always been firmly behind Summerbridge, but Ramon Cortines, the city’s school superintendent, is unequivocal in his support for both Summerbridge and Aim High. “I think they are outstanding,’' he says. “Through collaboration we can strengthen all of the educational system.’'

Vicky Evenson, a teacher at James Denman Middle School in San Francisco, agrees. “It’s a wonderful academic opportunity for disadvantaged and academically talented youth,’' says Evenson, who has referred students from her public school to Summerbridge. “It gives them advantages that enable them to do well in middle school and excel in an academic high school and college.’'

-Mark Walsh, Education Week

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Building Bridges

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