Closing opportunity and achievement gaps for high schoolers may sound like a lofty goal, but for the five-week Summer Learning Academy at the Jeremiah E. Burke High School, the unique combination of academic support, mentoring, enrichment, and employment aims to do just that.
“We wanted to create something unique to the school that basically had some different but very important parts: workforce development for the students, social-emotional learning, as well as academic instruction,” said Jonathan Rosenthal, Boston Private Industry Council’s School-to-Career Assistant Director.
Achieving this required collaboration between three distinct organizations – the Private Industry Council (PIC) finding youth worksite placement, the Burke providing the academic component for summer school credit, and Freedom House bringing enrichment for youth development.
“Providing children with a 12-month opportunity to be engaged in learning, whether it’s learning in the classroom or learning while beyond the walls of the classroom and in the workplace, is meaningful in a number of respects,” said Dr. Lindsa McIntyre, headmaster at the Burke. “It introduces the idea to students that these things that I learn in the context of school are applicable to my life’s space. They work outside of the building, in a job or in an internship, so that’s really, really important.”
Community partners make it possible for students who need to take summer courses to remain on track for graduation, but also need summer employment to provide for themselves and their families. The Burke Summer Learning Academy does both in a way that engages these students in learning beyond the classroom.
“The Boston PIC has prided itself on not just providing students with an opportunity to earn a paycheck, but we believe the workplace is a learning place. And that students can not only focus on sharpening their job specific skills (how to type, how to file, how to work as a camp counselor) but also improve their employability skills,” Rosenthal said. “When a student has their first job, it isn’t paramount what they are doing or where. The key is helping them understand that there are certain habits they will take from job to job, or career to career. Showing up on time, the ability to accept constructive criticism, speaking and listening clearly are vital regardless of where you work. In order to be successful you must get these down first. Then the student will start to identify what they are good at and combine it with what they are passionate about.”
For alumni of the program’s first year in 2010, the lessons they’ve learned have translated into success at the Burke beyond high school. Odelis Tejeda currently serves as the school police officer at the Burke, and hopes to impact students’ lives the same way his was in the Burke Summer Learning Academy.
“When I came back, I wanted to give what was given to me, which is guidance, advice, wisdom,” Tejeda said. “I just want to give back to the students here what was given to me.”
Tying in work with academics was particularly beneficial for Tejeda. He spent his summer with the program doing administrative work for a construction company. This was the first time he’d received a paycheck, teaching him about taxes and savings accounts, which eventually gave him the opportunity to buy his first car.
“The job made me develop responsibility,” Tejeda said. “It helped me value a job, be responsible, value and save my money, and spend money wisely.”
In addition to the academic and professional components of the Burke Summer Learning Academy, Tejeda was strongly impacted by the mentorship that is foundational to the program. Tejeda aspires to act as a mentor to the school community in the same way that Jon Rosenthal was a mentor to him.
“The fact that he caught me right there, right before we exit the school and graduate, it meant a lot to me,” Tejeda said. “It was really inspiring and motivating. I find myself doing that now, not offering jobs, but giving youth guidance working as a school police officer.”
Tejeda isn’t the only alum who returned to the Burke post-graduation. Fredrika Lawson graduated from the Burke in 2011 and became a staff member for the PIC. She chose to go back and assist with the Burke program she had participated in.
“It was an awesome experience for me to actually be in the program, and then graduate from the program to see what it was like from the outside looking in,” Lawson said.
Like Tejeda, Lawson found a mentor in the Northeastern professor she worked with over the summer, while collecting data and doing outreach regarding youth violence prevention.
“She took time out of her day – after our work hours were done – texting us asking how we were doing,” Lawson said. “It showed us dedication and made us want to push forward and help her with this data she was looking for. She was actually trying to help us as youth, to branch off. I’ve always had a mature mindset, but personally for me, it showed me that you’re not by yourself – you have someone in your corner that cares about you. You have to just believe.”
Apart from the valuable social connections made in the program, Lawson also credits the program with teaching the students responsibility, time management, and patience, all of which contributed to the transition from youth to adulthood. Mr. Omolo, a math teacher who taught Algebra 2 at the Burke Summer Learning Academy for seven years, agrees that the program drastically impacts students’ growth.
“Most of them would really know how to express themselves and how they feel about what’s going on,” Omolo said. “It was almost like moving from being a child to being a responsible teenager or a responsible young adult. It was so rapid – from the first day of meeting in the summer to the time they’re getting out they’d have such a change in behavior.”
The focus on how students could benefit from exposure to more math content over the summer provided a healthier learning environment than a traditional summer school. Omolo credits the varying academic levels as an important aspect of the summer learning program as well as the development of leadership among students.
“They felt so good about themselves and part of that came from the leadership,” Omolo said. “Apart from teaching them math, what was really impactful was the leadership.”
According to Omolo, another significant aspect of the program was the fact that students were learning on a college campus, like Roxbury Community College or Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology. This was a novel experience for the students and inspired many of them to look at their future and decide to continue their education at a college.
“Being able to integrate what they’re learning in school and what they’re exposed to beyond the walls of the school in such a way, it grew them and built confidence in them,” McIntyre said. “It allowed them to begin to take responsibility to own their learning, to grow as individuals and not be followers but to step into leadership. Being able to have that level of an opportunity allows schools to become more efficient. In addition to that, when you build someone’s esteem, their self-actualization, their confidence, they’re ready to try new things.”
Another integral aspect of the summer learning program for Omolo was the pairing of academics with an internship where students had the opportunity to hold a job, which he saw as a “double learning” that addressed responsibility in more than one way. While Omolo wasn’t directly involved in the internship, the students kept him well-informed, even sharing how they empathized with him because of their own experiences teaching younger students.
“It was like a life experience where they used this work to promote what they want to do in the future,” Omolo said. “It made them try to focus more in class. Work made them more responsible, which was really missing in other summer or enrichment programs.”
The impact of having enrichment and employment was apparent for Omolo’s students in their academic work as they went on to successfully learn the math content they may have struggled with in the school year.
“The big thing that stuck out to me was students saying they could learn the math now because of the different environment and the different group of students,” Omolo said. “They’d testify that they didn’t learn the math in class because they weren’t paying attention and other students weren’t paying attention but right now they were learning because everyone was trying to be focused. I heard that over and over and over.”
The Burke Summer Learning Academy’s unique combination of academics, enrichment, and employment enables students at risk of falling behind during the year a chance to gain learning experiences that extend far beyond their high school success and ultimately benefits the entire community.
“Starting this work as an underperforming school, in partnering with Boston After School & Beyond in the summer learning initiative, it was a strategy to help us close the gap. And it led this school to be the first high school and the only high school in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to exit turnaround,” McIntyre said. “That’s what summer learning will do for you – create continuums of opportunities for kids to keep thinking, to keep growing and to keep practicing their socialization.”