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New Tactic: Freshman Boot Camp

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The teenagers were barely freshmen, but there they sat in Birmingham High School classrooms last summer, writing essays and poring over math problems.

The Los Angeles Unified School District created the academic boot camp, called the Freshman Success Summer Bridge, at eight San Fernando Valley high schools last year for incoming students with low English or math scores.

But the program had some limitations. Because participation was voluntary, some students who needed it most did not attend, and others dropped out. For some, six weeks was not enough; for others, the work wasn't challenging.

"We wanted to put them into an intensive summer program, at the school they'll be attending in the fall, with a special curriculum and some of the same teachers" they would see during the regular school year, said Robert Collins, chief instructional officer for the district's secondary schools.

He said schools recruited about 1,400 students, roughly half those eligible.

Students included those who scored "below basic" or lower in English or math on standardized tests. In classes of about 25, they spent half their mornings on math, sometimes using laptop computers, and the other half on reading, writing and developing study skills.

Students who completed the program earned 10 credits toward the 60 they need to be promoted to 10th grade.

Birmingham Principal Marsha Coates said she tried to recruit teachers with a special knack "for working with at-risk students … someone they could form a bond with."

Summer bridge students attended classes in a small cluster of bungalows but joined high school summer school students at breaks in the lunch area. The incoming freshmen attended assemblies and other special programs and learned about credits and school rules.

Teacher Franklin Montiel said a few of his math students, who had low test scores but had mastered the material, were bored, and he scrambled to find more challenging work for them. Others were struggling at about a third-grade level, still learning division and nowhere near ready for the algebra they will need to graduate.

During class one morning, Montiel moved among students as they worked on problems, making sure they had understood the lesson and imploring them to ask for help when necessary.

He returned graded tests with words of encouragement: "When you fail a test, it doesn't mean you guys are failures," Montiel said. "It just means you are lacking a skill, and we are here to help you get that skill."

Then he spotted a distracted student. "Edward, you done? No? Let's go, Big Boy. C'mon, you can do it."

The district plans to track the summer bridge students through high school. By the end of the five-week fall grading period, 92% of Birmingham students who had completed the program had passing grade averages. Among students who were eligible for the program but had not participated, 81% were passing.

"We're really encouraged," said Missindy Wilkins, a teacher who oversaw the bridge program last summer.

Students were mostly positive.

"I didn't really feel like I needed any help, but I wanted to review so I wouldn't forget things over the summer," Susana Saldivar, 14, said a few weeks into the fall semester. "I learned some new things too…. On the first day of school, it was good to remember where to go."

Miguel Barnett, 14, said that he found the study skills class useful and that he is very happy to have those first 10 credits under his belt.

"I'm doing all right now," Miguel said, adding that if he ever fell short, "I know those credits could help me."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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