Summerbridge Program

New Fillmore, March 2006

Students in Charge: Teens become teachers at University High School's Summerbridge Program

By Max Millard

During Parents' Day at the Summerbridge program at University High School last July, instructor Jared Salin stood before a class of restless adolescents to teach them some Latin vocabulary. The room was filled with posters of ancient Rome, including one reading "The Roman Army Needs YOU" in Roman-style lettering. Jared asked how many students had seen Gladiator, the Oscar winner for Best Picture of 2000. Then he picked it apart as an unhistorical piece of sensationalism. After demonstrating the function of a homemade suit of armor, he described the 11 types of real gladiators and how they fought, writing their Latin names on a whiteboard. The students were so eager for the details that they kept interrupting him in mid-sentence, but he proceeded unruffled, quick to answer every question. Toward the end of class, he let students come forward, choose their weapons -- short swords, long swords and shields, all made of plastic and heavily padded -- and engage in combat, with a warning: "No head hunting!" When the bell rang, no one wanted to leave.

The class had everything one might expect from an expert instructor -- drama, educational value, variety, thorough knowledge of the subject and a smooth rapport between students and teacher. What made it surprising was that Jared was only 16 years old. But he was no exception: 31 of Summerbridge's other regular classroom teachers that summer were students, ranging from those entering their senior year of high school to newly minted college graduates. The theme of "students teaching students," which educates the instructors as much as their charges, sets Summerbridge apart from the thousands of summer schools that youngsters often dread attending.

University High School, an academically oriented private school on Jackson Street between Lyon and Baker streets, in one of San Francisco's wealthiest neighborhoods, began the free Summerbridge program in 1978 as a way of sharing its facilities with motivated middle school students from underprivileged backgrounds. The program gradually evolved into one in which students, under adult supervision, run almost everything themselves. They create their own curriculum for teaching morning classes in math, writing, social studies, foreign language and science, teach afternoon classes in public speaking, health education, environmental education, sports and the arts, and coordinate most major events, such as field trips, the school Olympics and Visitors' Day. Professional teachers serve as mentors and teach some courses in math and English, with the aid of high school teaching assistants.

In 1989 the Summerbridge model began spinning off to other cities, and today there are 26 Summerbridge programs nationwide and in Hong Kong (some called Breakthrough), all under the umbrella of the Breakthrough Collaborative organization. The San Francisco program alone has about 1,700 alumni including students and student teachers. Approximately 88 percent of the students are people of color, and almost two-thirds of the teachers have pursued careers in education.

Each January, Summerbridge begins recruiting a new group of sixth graders for its incoming class. They come from about 30 schools in San Francisco and Daly City, including Marina Middle School. Out of about 150 applicants, 35 to 40 are accepted. They must commit to attending the six-week program for the next three summers (in 2006 it runs Mon.-Fri. 8 a.m.-4 p.m., June 21-Aug. 2). Also, they must agree to come to University High School once a week during the school year for a 90-minute academic enrichment class, and for tutoring if their grade for any subject slips below B-minus.

The student teacher jobs are listed consistently by the Princeton Review as one of the top 10 internships in America. Last year almost 300 youths applied for the 32 slots. The result is a group of youth leaders with extraordinary talent, energy and ambition, who are hired to teach subjects for which they already have a passion. High schoolers receive $1000 and college students $1500 for the summer, which includes one week of training and another of wrap-up.

Jared, now a senior at St. Ignatius College Preparatory School in the Sunset district, joined Summerbridge as a student in the footsteps of his older brother Zach. They both completed the three-year program as students, and Jared was inspired by the Latin class, which he later took as a high school freshman. "I've been a huge fan of Roman history and mythology, and I read a lot. That prepared me the most," he said of his job. Teaching eight classes a week, with students from three grade levels, he didn't worry about running out of material because "if one class is quicker, I have reserve stuff that I can do with them. It's not like I'm reading the stuff out of a textbook. I know all this stuff, so I can pretty much do what I want."

He made many of the posters himself and borrowed the others from one of his former Latin teachers. He used computer games, projected on a large screen, for matching Latin words with their English definitions. Asked about the gladiator combat equipment, he said: "My brother actually made that armor. He went online, made one out of cardboard first, then made that for the state Latin convention." He and Zach have a full machine shop in their family's garage, and each year they make models for the convention. Both the armor and Jared's sword have won first-place awards. A straight-A student, Jared plans to major in classics or physics in college, then pursue a teaching career.

Another student teacher last summer, 17-year-old Meilani Clay, was a veteran public speaker and writer who was the Teen Poetry Slam co-champion of San Francisco for 2005. She is now a senior at Moreau Catholic High School in Hayward. She took the Summerbridge job as an English teacher, she said, because "I had planned on being a teacher, and when you're planning on doing something for a career, internships are a great way to see if you're really sure." Her typical schedule was to get up at 5:30 a.m., catch the BART by 6:15, and reach the campus by 7:30, where she ate breakfast with the students before or after her first class. The lesson plans didn't require much time because she used books that she'd already studied in school, but she had to make photocopies, prepare and correct the homework, and teach classes in health and sex education in the afternoon: "Because you're still a student, you understand a little bit more of what they're going through."

"I kind of knew the job was going to be hard, but I had no idea it was going to be so many hours," she admitted. "It's hard because you have the added pressure of making it fun. When you try something and it flops, that can be a big heartbreak."

Her commute home took up to two hours each night. "I eat, sleep and breathe this program. I just go home to wash the dishes, do my laundry, and go right back," she said.

The experience helped her to realize that "if I really want to, I can do it. But it's also kind of made me think like, wow, this is only six weeks. Could I do this for nine months? But at the same time I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing with my life than teaching. I don't think I've changed my mind about being a teacher, but I have been given a lot to think about in terms of the responsibility and the work."

The hardest thing for Jared was "to get a concrete lesson plan -- to think a week in advance about how the kids are going to be feeling, and pulling out a lesson for that. I walk into class, I spend five minutes, then I choose one to go with."

He summarized his experience by saying: "I'd just encourage anybody who loves learning to teach at Summerbridge. You don't have to want to be a teacher to come: you just have to be inspired. I've had so many teachers in high school who you could tell weren't really into the subject they were teaching. I think the kids need somebody who loves knowledge."

Jared has applied to return as a teacher this summer. Meilani hasn't, due to other commitments prior to entering Howard University in Washington, D.C., but she hopes to come back during her college years.

Applications for sixth-grade students, student teachers and teaching assistants are available on the Internet and will be accepted through early March. Students: Teachers:

(Max Millard is the copy chief for Northside and the Marina Times.)