By Elena Kadvany
Special to the Almanac
Since 1999, a program called Compass has served as a summer-bridge program for some students entering the Sequoia Union High School District. It focuses on "at-risk" freshmen performing below grade level. A 24-day summer program of English, math and skills classes is intended to prepare them for high school. In addition, they get acquainted with teachers, the school campus and each other so they feel more comfortable when they start in the fall.
Compass serves students working below grade level. What about incoming students who should be in advanced classes?
The answer: the Honors Institute.
Created by a group of M-A faculty and staff three years ago, the institute is a five-week summer program geared toward incoming students from lower-income areas who are scoring at or above grade level. The program is funded by the Foundation for the Future, an M-A High fundraising group.
Many of these M-A students begin high school in honors classes but drop out, even in their first year, said administrative vice principal Karl Losekoot, who is among those who created the Honors Institute. "So how do we better prepare them to make it through at least a full year, if not more?" By beginning early.
Before the school year begins, M-A courts these high-potential students at feeder schools in the area and invites them to be a part of the institute in order to make an early connection with the high school they will attend.
Mr. Losekoot explained the process: "We sent them fancy letters, we made nice fliers, we called them up, we made them T-shirts, we did everything we could to make it a very boutique-y program where students in the program would feel, 'I'm special, this is just for me.'"
One goal is to give them a sense of what an honors class at M-A is like. "What's the workload, what's the rigor, what's the level of critical thought that's required," he said.
A second goal is to help the students form a community with their peers.
"One of the problems is that a lot of these students not all, but many are students of color. They would be in some of our honors classes and feel kind of isolated and alone," Mr. Losekoot explained. "So, if we could bring a lot of these students together, they would come to form connections and at least know each other, if not become friends."
This year, 48 students are participating in the Honors Institute, the largest class yet.
Students are grouped in advanced English, math and science classes so that they go through the program together and become resources for each other. Students also take an elective class, where they learn skills necessary to succeed as an honors student, such as communication and assertiveness.
Cecelia Estrada, 16, an East Palo Alto resident, was one of the institute's first students three years ago. The elective class was her favorite. "I learned to speak up more and to interact with others," she said. "I made a lot of friends."
Cecelia, now a junior, is not only enrolled in AP courses, but has returned to the Honors program this summer to serve as a peer mentor. The mentors give presentations on good study habits and things to look out for during freshman year. They are available throughout classes to answer questions and help students with their work.
Although she may be the ideal example of the institute's potential impact, many institute students don't remain in advanced classes for even a year. But there's another goal that's harder to measure and it happens over time, said Mr. Losekoot. "Do these kids continue to feel like they're connected to the school, that the school cares about them?" he said. "Do they continue to feel special? I think if we've achieved that on some level, if they have higher self-esteem because of that, they're going to be more successful students no matter what classes they take."