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Teachers try to bridge middle, high school

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet staff
Thursday August 09, 2001

In an effort to ease the adjustment into high school for 60 at-risk students, an “all-star” cast of Berkeley High teachers have spent this week showing the students around campus and sharing strategies for survival.  

In four 50-minute periods each morning, they’ve worked to strengthen the students’ reading, writing and math skills – and to expose them to the pleasures of artistic expression. 

It’s all part of a summer “bridge” program that school administrators hope will give students the tools and connections they need to avoid being overwhelmed at Berkeley High. 

“We want to eliminate the fear factor of that first day or that first week at Berkeley High or any high school,” said Berkeley High Principal Frank Lynch. 

For students who struggle academically in Berkeley middle schools, the increased academic rigor of Berkeley High School can come as a quite a shock. 

Students who may have never written a full-page essay before are suddenly confronted with the need to write half-a-dozen essays each semester. Students who never completely mastered multiplication and division find themselves grappling with algebraic equations. 

Last year, nearly 200 Berkeley High freshman were failing two or more classes by the end of their first semester. 

Wyn Skeels, a Berkeley High history teacher who has spent the week touring the students around the 17-acre campus and going over the courses they’ll need to graduate, said the summer bridge program is an effort to transform disadvantaged students into advantaged ones. 

The students are learning everything they need to know about tutoring services, mentoring programs, the student health center and more, Steels said: “Things that they would normally only find out about when they really need it, or after they need it.” 

At the health clinic, for example, staff “can’t even give (a student) a Tylenol” until they have taken a form home to get it signed by their parents, Steels said. And yet many students first visit to the center comes when they are already sick.  

After a tour of the center this week, the bridge program students took the appropriate forms home for signatures. 

In writing class, students worked in small groups with volunteer writing tutors from the Writer’s Room program. After reading a Maya Angelou essay meditating on how a person’s choice of clothing can reflect his or her identity, the tutors brainstormed ideas with the students, telling them again and again to “write that down.”  

Students who had begun the class looking wary and noncommittal seemed amazed to learn how quickly a casual conversation could segue into paragraphs of written observations. 

“They’re learning to write the basic essay structure that they’ll use throughout school,” said Writer’s Room tutor Wendy Breuer. “Hopefully they’ll go home and write another draft.” 

In art class, Berkeley High painting and drawing teacher Sally Wolfer sees the bridge program as an opportunity to awaken students to the school’s wide array of art classes – elective courses that students who don’t think of themselves as artists might not have considered otherwise. 

“What’s kind of cool is you open up kids to their own potential,” Wolfer said. “I want to turn them on and give them a passion about art and having a creative voice.” 

Since bridge program students failed some classes as eighth graders, they’ve already been through six weeks of remedial summer school before going into the bridge program. So it’s key, said Wolfer and others, not to overburden them with work this week. Rather, the teachers aim to give the students positive experiences that they hope will build some enthusiasm for their first days of school. 

“As much as you want to give them the academic support, we’re trying to do it creatively,” Wolfer said. 

In between classes, the students have 20 minute snack breaks to hang out in the Berkeley High courtyard and socialize. On Thursday there will be a full-fledged barbecue.  

One key role of the summer program, said program coordinator Meg Matan, an English teacher at Berkeley High, is to allow the kids to build relationships with teachers, safety officers and other high school staff – people they can turn to for support during the regular year.  

Berkeley High Parent Liaison Irma Parker dropped in on an art class Wednesday to explain to students that she was there to answer any questions their parents might have once school begins. She warned the students that high school is a different world than middle school: a place where choosing the wrong friends could have serious implications for the rest of their lives. She reminded them that a new truancy policy at the school will be in effect this fall, so that anything the students might have heard about how easy it is to skip class at Berkeley High no longer applies. 

“Everybody is going to be looking for you guys.,” Parker said. “You won’t be able to have some of the freedom that the other kids had.” 

But above all, Parker emphasized to the students that she was ready and willing to be “their mother away from home” should they ever need someone to talk to. 

“Believe me, I will help you guys get whatever you need.” 

While many of the students in the room continued to listen to their Walkman radios while Parker spoke, her words carried what must have been a welcome message to some. Summer bridge program students have yet to overcome all their fears about the transition to high school. 

“I was a genius in middle school,” said a recent Willard Middle School graduate who gave her name as Chasady D. She said she was somewhat intimidated by the harder work load of high school. During the regular school year, “You don’t get that much help (at Berkeley High), like we’re used to from Middle school,” she said. 

Berkeley High history, economics and government teacher Thomasine Wilson gave students a basic reading assessment test Wednesday, as part of a new effort to identify students’ specific deficits early and connect them with appropriate intervention. She, like the other summer bridge teachers, was impressed with their energy and warmth. 

“It’s so hard to look at them and think of them as ‘at risk’ kids, because they’re so verbal and they have such plans for themselves,” Wilson said. “There’s a kind of empowerment that they need to have. The more they know, the more they feel that they have some control over the institution, instead of the institution just sort of wanging them about.” 

The summer bridge program is all about empowerment. What remains to be seen, according to Wolfer, is whether it will be enough. 

“The sad thing is, you start to nurture a small group of kids, and then you turn them loose in a school of 3,400 kids. It’s not smart. Imagine the progress we could make with these kids (if they remained in a small group).”