A new study from Stanford University is praising a summer youth program with a unique focus in California’s Bay Area.
Aim High provides a free, five-week summer-learning opportunity for middle school students from low-income families in northern California. The program blends academics with enrichment activities such as sports and art. I know what you’re thinking. That sounds like a typical summer program. But what really makes Aim High stand out is its focus on encouraging minority students to become teachers.
The program itself is not designed to turn these students into teachers or to introduce them to the field. That comes into consideration with the way the program is staffed. Students who have gone through Aim High are encouraged to come work with the program after they move on to high school and college.
When the study was conducted in 2015, Aim High served more than 1,900 students across 15 sites. Now the program has grown to 17 campuses and serves more than 2,200 students. Students are eligible for the program from the summer before they enter 6th grade to the summer before they enter 9th grade. About 75 percent of Aim High students attend the program for at least two summers and many of them attend for three or four summers. [This post has been updated to add the number of sites and students served currently. 7/7/16]
The program is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and in the fall of 2014 reached out to Stanford’s John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities (Gardner Center) to request an implementation study of the program.
Gardner researchers conducted interviews with Aim High leaders and focus group interviews with students, teaching staff, and parents. They also observed the program in action and conducted surveys with all of the various stakeholders.
They found that Aim High meets all the standards of practice for high-quality summer-learning programs and also praised the program’s goal, “to build a pipeline for diverse teachers to enter the field of education.”
About two-thirds of the program’s lead teachers are minorities, and the majority of the students are people of color. Lead teachers are either certified teachers, after-school program instructors, teachers from independent school districts or teachers who are close to being certified. Each site also has two directors who generally come from the Aim High lead-teaching ranks.
The program hires high school students to serve as teaching assistants, while college students function as interns. About 40 percent of those staff members are graduates of the program.
“We know that our students love having role models who have experiences that are similar to them,” said Michelle Capobres, Aim High’s director of academics and program evaluation. “We feel like being more deliberate about our pipeline to teaching from our alumni is a way of bringing more teachers of color to the Bay Area.”
It seems like their plan is working. Fifty-six percent of interns reported that their experience with Aim High made them more likely to consider a career in education, while 59 percent of the teaching assistants said the same.
The researchers also noted that the program incorporated differentiated instruction, engaged and rigorous programming, small class sizes (averaging 18 students), parent involvement, and sufficient time for instruction.
“Students who might have slipped through the cracks during the school year because they’re in larger classrooms with one teacher are able to get more help,” said Capobres.” We really focus on the skill building and talking about growth mindset in our math classes.”
The day is divided between academics in the morning and activities in the afternoon.
“In our classrooms, we do project-based learning, and we try to make learning as relevant to their lives as possible,” said Capobres. “It definitely feels like school but in a very different way. We like to say our classrooms are the intersection of rigor and engagement. We want to challenge our students, but we’re also very mindful of them being engaged.”
Areas for Improvement
The researchers did list two areas where the program could improve. One was in the education of students who are learning English.
In response, the program plans to hire a teacher to focus on English-language learners next summer. This person would work at the two sites with the most ELL students.
The study also suggested that Aim High could provide instructors with more support considering the fact that, "...the program’s emphasis on differentiated instruction, project-based learning, collaborative learning, and conceptual understanding call for pedagogical strategies that even experienced teachers often find difficult to implement effectively.”
Instructors currently receive two weeks of professional development along with 20 different workshops. And, Capobres said the program plans to put more resources into working with teachers to know what’s developmentally appropriate when it comes to project-based learning.
Alec Lee is the executive director and co-founder of Aim High. He said going through this type of review is part of what makes Aim High work so well.
He cited the program’s, “relentless commitment to getting better,” and added that, “We felt like it was a tremendous validation of our model. We said to them all along, please tell us what we can do better. It was great to get some feedback from such a prominent organization. Ultimately, I think the lesson for other organizations like ours is that a great way to sustain oneself is that commitment to learning and growth.”
Photo: Aim High students discuss an assignment with their teacher. (Photo courtesy Aim High)
A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.