Summer Bridge Programs
More students fail ninth grade than any other grade and many of these students ultimately drop out. Can pre-emptive interventions lead to increased graduation rates? Emerging evidence suggests that eight-grade transition programs increase pass rates, boost enthusiasm for learning, improve academic skills, enhance self-esteem, and reduce discipline problems.
In this article:
Across the nation, school policymakers are grappling with what to do about the increasing numbers of students who do not advance beyond ninth grade (Wheelock & Miao, 2005). National estimates put the student attrition rate before tenth grade at between 11% and 33% (Dedmond, 2008; Education Week, 2007). Only about 70% of ninth graders make it to graduation four years later (Education Week, 2007; Gossage, 2007).
More students fail ninth grade than any other grade (Williams & Richman, 2007). Increasing the numbers of students held back in ninth grade has not proven effective, as many of these students — some estimates are as high as 80% — later drop out (Allensworth & Easton, 2007; Balfanz & Letgers, 2004; Haney, Madaus, Abrams, Wheelock, Miao, & Gruia, 2004; Kemple, Herlihy, & Smith, 2005). However, intervening with these students before they fail may lead to increased graduation rates (Herlihy, 2007a; Williams & Richman, 2007; Quint, 2006; Smith, 1997; Williams & Richman, 2007).
This article focuses on one type of activity that is designed to help eighth-grade students make a successful transition to high school — eighth-grade summer bridge programs. These programs are similar in concept to their counterparts for aspiring college bound students who may benefit from extra support (Kezar, 2000; Munoz, 2000). Students are identified and recruited into a summer program that offers academic remediation, social support, and orientation activities that are designed to enhance their ability to succeed during their freshman year. As part of a comprehensive transition approach, summer bridge programs can be a promising practice for school administrators and policymakers to consider (Gossage, 2007).
Why consider eighth-grade transition programs?
Emerging evidence suggests that students who succeed in high school have, among other things, made a successful transition from middle school to ninth grade (Herlihy, 2007b; National Association of Secondary School Principals, 2006; Reents, 2002). To this end, many school districts offer transition programs that are aimed at addressing the unique needs of eighth-grade students (Dedmond, Brown, & LaFauci, 2006; Kerr, 2002; Mac Iver, 1990; Mizelle & Irvin, 2000; Morgan & Hertzog, 2001). In addition to improved pass rates from ninth to tenth grade, benefits of transition programs may include increased enthusiasm and motivation for learning, improved academic skills, enhanced self-esteem, and fewer discipline problems (Dedmond, Brown, & LaFauci, 2006).
- Orientation activities during eighth grade — and sometimes earlier — that help students and their families acclimate themselves to the high school environment, curriculum, and requirements
- Summer programs that prepare students for the transition
- Ninth-grade interventions, such as organizational structures (ninth grade academies, schools within schools), curriculum supports (extended block scheduling, catch-up curriculum classes), and/or individual supports (pairing ninth graders with mentors, counseling), that provide ongoing academic and social support for students
Elements to consider when planning summer bridge programs
- In a tri-county region in Massachusetts, students identified as at risk attend a summer bridge program to improve their academic skills and to help them adjust to the expectations of high school.
- In a large urban school district in California, all eighth-grade students are invited to attend a three-day summer bridge residential program designed to expose them to information, people, and high school related experiences.
- In a school district in Georgia, all entering ninth-grade students are invited to a weeklong summer bridge program that provides academic and social support.
Summer bridge programs are stand-alone activities that span several days or weeks during the summer prior to ninth grade. They may differ in design (e.g., half day versus full day; extended learning blocks versus hourly classes), as well as location (e.g., high school campus, vocational center with field trips to the high school campus).
- Enhancing student confidence, self-esteem, and motivation to learn
- Improving academic skills, including developing study skills (e.g., note taking, scheduling)
- Providing opportunities for students to meet high school teachers and build positive student-teacher relationships
- Ensuring that students and parents have adequate information about school programs, policies, procedures, courses, scheduling, etc.
- Encouraging social interactions with other eighth-grade students, as well as with high school students who serve as peer mentors
Policy decisions related to establishing summer bridge programs
As with any program, there will be generic issues of day-to-day management, funding (e.g., district funding, fees paid by students' families), location, and scheduling. Office personnel may be needed for such tasks as answering questions about the program, registering students, preparing information packets, and maintaining records. Transportation and food services also should be considered.
In addition, there are key design and policy issues that are specific to planning summer bridge programs. Selected examples follow.
Determining the student population
Summer bridge programs are intended to ease the transition to high school, but for which students? Some programs open their doors to all students, while others limit participation to students who are at risk academically. In some cases, particularly when funding may be an issue, programs may be open to students who register on a first-come, first-served basis, or to students who meet certain qualifications (e.g., students from a middle school that did not meet the Adequate Yearly Progress requirement of the No Child Left Behind Act, students who qualify for free or reduced lunches, students who have been selected to attend a freshman academy program, etc.).
Programs usually require students to complete an application for participation. While application questions may vary, most require explicit family and student commitment (e.g., a promise to attend each day) as a prerequisite for participation.
Policy decisions related to identifying the appropriate student population have implications that extend to the entire program. The target audience will influence decisions regarding curriculum content, the activities that are provided, and the types of support staff who may be needed.
Creating the curriculum
Program content is designed to identify and address issues that undermine successful transition (Wheelock & Miao, 2005). These might include, for example, adapting to high school academics, feeling safe, and understanding the structure of high school (Akos & Galassi, 2004).
Many summer bridge programs embrace the notion that students should have fun as they learn. Worksheets, lectures, and drills are replaced with motivating, inquiry-based activities and experiences in which students develop deeper understandings and an appreciation for the subject areas (Southern Regional Education Board, 2002).
Activities are provided that help students see the link between what they are learning and the outside world. For example, students may spend one day per week participating in community-based field trips where they see the value of education in the work place (Southern Regional Education Board, n.d.).
- Skill development
Many summer bridge programs provide academic skill support, particularly in math and language arts instruction. Some also offer study skill instruction (e.g., note taking, scheduling, and test taking.) In some cases, guidance counselors work with students individually and in small groups to address social-emotional needs.
- High school orientation
Students participate in high school tours and visits. They also have opportunities to talk with high school students about expectations and how to survive high school life.
- Social events
Summer bridge programs often emphasize student bonding to ensure that ninth graders have support groups. This is particularly important when a middle school is a feeder school to different high schools, or when students from several middle schools attend the same high school. Students may get to know each other socially during meals, if provided, or during activities in which the focus is on building relationships.
Programs are bound by what can be accomplished within the time frame as well as the realities of available human and fiscal resources. Articulating specific program goals helps stakeholders (e.g., students, families, teaching faculty) hold realistic expectations about outcomes.
Staffing the program
The nature of these programs calls for teachers who are comfortable with all facets of the curriculum-motivating activities, field trips, social activities, etc. Optimally, summer bridge programs are staffed by the ninth grade teachers who will eventually teach the participating students during the school year. This enables students to form relationships with teachers who they can turn to during the academic year. It also allows them to learn about teacher priorities and course requirements.
Summer bridge programs often utilize high school students as aides, mentors, and peer buddies. Typically, these students receive preparation for their responsibilities and roles. In some school districts where community service is required for graduation, high school students may receive credit for serving in summer bridge programs.
Some summer bridge programs provide support staff such as guidance counselors, career/technology specialists, special education teachers, reading specialists, etc. Their participation is integrated into the program and based on student needs.
Instituting a code of conduct
Many of the same issues that apply to summer school programs also apply to summer bridge programs. For example, discipline and attendance policies must be articulated to students in advance of participation, and dress codes for both classroom and field trip activities must be developed.
Assessing the program
Comprehensive transition programs often are assessed using a combination of ninth-grade performance indicators, such as decreased absentee rates, steady or increased grade point averages, steady or increased participation in extracurricular activities, decreased truancy rates, fewer discipline issues, greater student orientation to goals, and higher rates of parent involvement (Dedmond, Brown, & LaFauci, 2006). However, caution is warranted in expecting too much from summer bridge programs. These programs alone may not result in significant gains during the school year (Roderick, Engel, & Nagaoka, 2003).
- Students are assessed on criterion-referenced pretests and post-tests as part of the summer bridge program.
- Students and their families complete surveys regarding their satisfaction with the program.
- Students who participated in summer bridge programs and those who did not are compared on indicators throughout ninth grade.
Offering special incentives
To encourage and sustain participation, some summer bridge programs offer special incentives to students. Examples include tee shirts with the high school logo, book bags, and school supplies. A few summer bridge programs offer course credit to participants.
Ninth grade is a critical year for students. Middle schools and high schools operate differently, which often poses challenges to students who are struggling. Without support in understanding and meeting high school expectations, many students may not succeed. Summer bridge programs can provide a promising activity as part of a total transition approach.
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