Starting high school in the fall makes 13-year-old Sam Aguilar a little nervous. Unfamiliar faces. Difficult classes. A confusing campus.
But this summer, Sam is taking a monthlong course at Santa Paula High School to refresh his math and reading skills and make his first day as a freshman less daunting.
Educators argue that the transition from middle school to high school can be hard for students, often bruising their confidence and hurting their academic performance.
Santa Paula's summer institute is designed to help absorb the shock, boosting reading and writing abilities while instilling leadership skills and the desire to succeed.
"When I get back from summer vacation, I'm just like a blank slate," Sam said. "So this helps me brush up my skills before I get to the ninth grade."
The summer program is one of a series of initiatives launched at the high school to step up student achievement.
The school recently eliminated lower-level classes and funneled hundreds of students into college-prep courses. Administrators also have formed a partnership with Cal State Channel Islands to help prepare students for college-level math and English classes.
But despite the efforts to raise the academic bar, Santa Paula High School students still scored poorly on the Stanford 9 achievement test, according to results released last week.
While Santa Paula's 10th-graders improved their scores by a few percentile points, the ninth- and 11th-graders' scores dropped. The 11th-graders scored at the 21st percentile in reading, down from the 26th last year, and language scores dropped from the 33rd to the 29th.
"We've done a really good job raising expectations and creating a top-level academic environment to meet the needs of high-achieving students," said Bill Brand, superintendent of the Santa Paula Union High School District. "We now need to attack the student who is not performing at grade level and not meeting the standards of the Stanford 9."
The poor performance at the high school level was paralleled throughout Ventura County and California, except in Oak Park and Conejo Valley.
In Simi Valley, while ninth- and 10th-graders improved by a few percentile points, 11th-grade scores declined in reading, math and language. And in Ventura, ninth-grade scores improved by only one percentile point in reading, stayed the same in math and dropped three percentile points in language.
State officials blame a flaw in the test for the dive in high school scores, especially in the ninth grade.
But other educators blame the "ninth-grade dip" on the transition between middle school and high school, the lack of basic skills instruction, and students' perceptions that the scores don't matter.
Whatever the reason, local districts are creating and expanding programs to hone basic skills.
They are reducing the sizes of ninth-grade English classes and targeting low-performing students for after-school tutoring sessions. Oxnard plans to enroll more students in a mandatory summer school class for poor readers. Ventura wants to hire reading and math specialists at the high school level. And Santa Paula plans to expand its summer institute.
Santa Paula educators implemented the summer institute in 1997 to help prepare students for high school and make them feel connected to the campus. Forty-four students participated the first year, 54 the second and 87 this year. They were all referred by their middle schools based on academic performance.
During the program, the students hear guest speakers, tour Santa Paula High School, visit local colleges and meet counselors and administrators. And after completing the course, they receive five credits.
While the academic classes resemble most summer school programs, the leadership component is unique and has won statewide recognition.
"It's not the math or the language arts," leadership teacher Justin Schmidt said. "It's the self-esteem and leadership activities that empower them and make these kids better students. Once they have a reason to try and be successful, they will be."
For one hour a day, the incoming freshmen work on activities aimed at making them responsible, confident and successful. They learn study skills, how to resolve conflicts and how to work with a team.
On Monday, Schmidt led them in a brainstorming session on "an ideal student."
The teens listed several qualities, drew life-size pictures of their ideal student and took turns sharing the drawings. On one drawing, a light bulb indicated the student was smart, big ears meant she was a good listener and a watch symbolized always being on time.
Schmidt told the incoming freshmen that they all had those qualities.
"There's no set blueprint for an ideal student," he said. "You are all ideal students. Just keep doing the right thing and get involved in something you care about."
Lisa Salas, the institute's director and a Santa Paula High School graduate, said the program has helped some students.
Of last year's participants, 86% maintained at least a 2.0 grade point average, enabling them to participate in extracurricular and athletic activities. In addition, some students raised their reading level by two or three grades.
Sam said he was anxious to learn his way around the high school.
"Now I'll know my teachers and I'll know where my classes are," he said. "I won't be so lost on the first day."
Eva Reyes, 14, said the program is helping prepare her as well. "It gives me a little head start at the high school."