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).
Transition programs typically include a combination of activities to help students understand and succeed in their new school, such as:
- 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
Features of typical ninth-grade transition programs
Strategies are in place to:
- Identify struggling students prior to ninth grade.
- Monitor student progress (track and evaluate data, including achievement results, disciplinary events).
- Recruit students and their families to transition programs that require potential participants to complete applications.
- Address instructional needs of students (catch-up classes, tutoring, extended block scheduling, double dose of core academic courses).
- Address social and emotional needs of students (provide counseling and social service support, provide opportunities for eighth-grade students to socialize with high school students).
- Emphasize career planning.
- Personalize the learning environment (provide smaller classes and small learning communities).
- Build capacity within school faculty for addressing student needs (professional development, coaching, regular teacher team meetings, interdisciplinary teams).
- Arrange for middle school and high school teachers to collaborate (share information and expertise).
- Communicate with families regularly (via in-person opportunities to participate, through Web-based communications) about high school academic and behavioral expectations, their child’s progress, and what they can do to support success.
- Develop partnerships with the greater community (business, higher education, mentors).
Elements to consider when planning summer bridge programs
Consider these examples:
- 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).
Although summer bridge programs typically incorporate academic support — the cornerstone of traditional summer school programs in which the emphasis is on remediating student learning deficits — such activities are only part of the program’s focus. In helping eighth-grade students prepare for high school, summer bridge programs typically emphasize the following goals:
- 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
A look at Dekalb County’s summer bridge program
In Georgia’s Dekalb County school system, all eighth-grade students who will be attending Stephenson High School are invited to attend a week-long summer bridge program. Students arrive at 7:30 for breakfast, after which they participate in a series of classes that last until 3:30 p.m. (with a break for lunch). The results? Initial evaluation data show that:
- Ninety percent of summer bridge participants earned enough credits their freshman year to become sophomores.
- Summer bridge students outscored nonparticipants on end-of-course tests.
- Summer bridge students demonstrated an 80% pass rate in freshman biology courses; the average for nonparticipating students was 61%.
- Summer bridge students tended to take three advanced placement (AP) courses in their junior year in comparison to nonparticipating students who typically averaged one AP class.
According to Deneen McBean-Warner, who directs the summer bridge program, a major factor for the program’s success is its instructional program and how it motivates students to learn. “We build a culture of high expectations that all students can learn and then provide them with engaging activities.”
Interdisciplinary teams of teachers work with small groups (approximately 18 students) in preplanned, project-based, thematic units-linked to state standards-that incorporate the following types of activities:
- In language arts, students read a novel in which the main character discovers personal truths. Students respond by creating a scrapbook that answers the question, Who am I?
- In mathematics, students use mathematical concepts and tools (e.g., spreadsheets) to develop an entertainment facility.
- In science, students use the scientific method as they investigate a “crime scene.”
- In social studies, students learn about elections first hand as they develop their own platform for ninth-grade student council representative.
Students also attend a class entitled “High School 101,” where they learn study skills along with school scheduling, policies, and procedures. A guidance counselor participates in this class.
Students have opportunities to interact with upper class high school students who serve as class aides, mentors, and escorts. Most of these students also have attended the summer bridge program. They receive credit toward their community service graduation requirement. In 2008, the program was budgeted at $15,000. Almost one-half of eligible eighth-grade students (180 of 400) participated.
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.
Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement (2009). Summer Bridge Programs. Washington, DC: Author.