Stealing a page from successful college “bridge” programs to help high school students make the transition, some Southern California high schools are offering similar programs for incoming 9th graders.
The 26- school Alliance for College Ready Public Schools in Los Angeles offer the one-to four-week classes. They said the goal is to get students to meet each other and their teachers and to instill in incoming students the social and study skills they’ll need to excel in high school.
“In middle school you’ve made friends, you’ve been there for three years and then you go to a different high school,” said Cara McCullough, the principal of the Alliance’s Health Services Academy high school.
"The high schools are sometimes bigger, and it’s just new people, and so you’re wondering if you’re going to really be able to make the kind of connections you made in middle school.”
Experts said it’s important for kids to understand that, unlike middle school, every high school grade counts toward graduation and college entry.
“We know 9th grade is a critical year,” said U.C. Santa Barbara education professor Russ Rumberger. “The students who basically fail 9th grade or fail a significant number of courses - usually two or more - are completely at risk of not graduating.”
Los Angeles’ Green Dot charter school network holds a two-week, six hour a day summer bridge program. About a dozen small traditional Los Angeles Unified high schools held 9th grade summer bridge classes this year - but the school district does require all high schools to run such programs.
A visit to the bridge program at Alliance Health Services has the feeling of a military boot camp. School leaders talk about the mission and the “soldiers” learn enough about each other to trust one another during the mission.
Teacher Alvin Alvarez sounded like a gentle drill sergeant during the “Wolfpack” class on the second day of the 9th grade bridge program in July. The school is in South Los Angeles and 95 percent of its students are categorized by the state as socioeconomically disadvantaged.
Alvarez asked about 15 students how many of their parents graduated from high school. Fewer than six hands went up. Even fewer stayed up when he asked how many of their parents attended college.
“Let us be your resource, teachers, counselors, administration, psychologist, let them be your help. That’s what we’re here for,” Alvarez said.
Alliance administrators boast that 95 percent of its graduates go to college, and they partly credit 9th grade summer bridge.
Educators said students in low-income communities would benefit the most from such programs because fewer parents there are able to give students tutoring or educational camp options. They can also help them understand more subtle things – like what the letter grades mean and how each class in high school counts.
“You don’t have to have this conversation in other communities because it’s just assumed that the parents are talking about this at the dinner table,” said Cal State LA teacher trainer Rebecca Joseph.
She said teachers often don’t have time during the regular year to teach these soft skills.
“We only get 180 days with them; it’s not enough,” Joseph said.
The bridge programs aren’t cheap. Alliance administrators said it cost $92,000 to run the 130-student program at Health Services Academy.
Education researcher Thomas Parrish said that price tag shouldn’t stop school districts from helping ease the transition for incoming 9th graders.
“They might simply bring the middle schools to the high school even for a day,” he said. “Give them a free lunch and show them around.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of schools in the Alliance for College Ready Public Schools. KPCC regrets the error.