Successful Students

Students enrolled in High Points Scholars, a summer program at West Seattle Elementary School, participate in field trips like fishing to connect the classroom and the 'reel' world. Photo by Staci Maiers

One Fish, Two Fish: West Seattle’s Bridge Across Summer

Eleven-year-old Martin Medina Cruz grabbed his fishing pole and bait and started mimicking the actions of his instructor demonstrating how to cast a reel.

“I’m going to catch three fish today!” exclaimed Medina Cruz, one of a group of students lining the beach of West Seattle’s Lincoln Park on one Friday morning. “I caught a catfish up in Bellingham once, but this is my first time fishing for salmon.”

On the surface, it may look like just another summer day in the park, but Medina Cruz was actually in school—and fishing was the catch, err lesson, of the day.

“My grandmother inspired me to do [the program] because she said, ‘If you stay there watching TV, you’re going to lose all your knowledge and you’re going to be one year behind,’” said Medina Cruz, a High Point Scholar who is going into the sixth grade at West Seattle Elementary School, one of NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign intensive support sites. “She’s got a point there.”

It’s a classic case of two steps forward, three steps back. School lets out for the summer and students—especially those from low-income backgrounds—are at risk of losing critical academic ground.

Referred to as the “summer slump,” research shows students return to school from summer vacation with diminished reading skills, presumably from lack of practice. A 2007 study published in American Sociological Review showed the tipping point for the achievement gap between high and low-socioeconomic student’s loss in reading proficiency occurred during the summer months throughout the elementary grades—making programs like High Point Scholars even more pivotal.

High Point Scholars—consisting of 30 students evenly split between rising fifth and sixth graders—targeted students who were recommended by teachers due to risk of academic failure, need for social emotional development, or a safe and nurturing space for the summer. The program is funded in part by the Families and Education Levy from the City of Seattle, The Safeco Corporation, and other smaller private donations.

Gisselle Gudino, a rising sixth grader at West Seattle Elementary School, jots down quotes for her High Point Scholars writing assignment. Photo by Staci Maiers

Last year, West Seattle received a School Improvement Grant and used its first year of the much-needed grant funding to increase wraparound services, especially necessary for its high-needs student population. Health care, counselors—even embedding a local chapter of the YMCA inside the school—have helped educators attend to the whole child with the hopes of increasing student achievement as a result.

Nathan Sander works for that local chapter of the YMCA and serves as the director of education and leadership at West Seattle through which he spearheads the High Point Scholars program.

“We were given the opportunity to build curriculum that looked different from school and allowed for hands-on learning that was geared specifically for our population,” said Sander. “I feel confident that High Point Scholars will stand out as leaders in their classrooms next school year.”

The fear—and driving force—behind High Point Scholars are simple: if you don’t use it, you lose it. Through High Point Scholars, students have opportunities to participate in project-based learning, service-learning projects, community development work, outdoor education, peer mentoring, small group instruction, and weekly field trips. Instruction followed Seattle Public Schools requirements and helped students to be more academically and socially prepared for the upcoming school year.

“As a teacher, having the opportunity to get a head start with some of my future fifth graders this year was invaluable. I was able to establish strong bonds with many of my future kiddos in an environment that was not as high stakes,” said Tara Slinden, a fifth-grade teacher at West Seattle who also provided academic instruction of High Point Scholars. “We got to laugh and play and still learn a ton. We got the chance to get to know each other as people.”

Teacher Tara Slinden speaks with rising sixth grader Martha Garnica during a session of High Point Scholars. Photo by Staci Maiers

By offering “Field Trip Fridays,” which included trips to local parks and beaches, “it was our way of showing them that learning can be ‘cool!’” said Slinden. “We designed a curriculum that was all about exposing students to the educational opportunities that surround them on a daily basis.”

An underground tour of downtown Seattle, a visit to the Pacific Science Center and a trip to Discovery Park are just three of the field trips students experienced during the six-week program. In one of the last field trips of the season, High Point Scholars had the opportunity to cast a line into the bay at Lincoln Park in West Seattle. Leila Addi and Gisselle Gudino, who fished for the first time, even caught pink salmon.

And the kids are getting it—hook, line and sinker.

“Field trips are a lot more fun than watching TV…you can go to different places that you’ve never been to,” said Medina Cruz. “We’re writing an article about every field trip. [The program] helps me think more.”

“Summer Slump” Statistics:

  • A 2007 report by Johns Hopkins University researchers cites that roughly two-thirds of the ninth-grade achievement gap between lower and higher income youth can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities during the elementary school years.
  • Research conducted by Harris Cooper of Duke University places the average student loses at least a month’s worth of learning over the summer. In math, the loss is even greater, with an average of 2.6 months of grade-level equivalency loss over the summer period.
  • National Summer Learning Association found that effective summer learning programs have been linked to positive outcomes for youth. Specifically, effective programs led to higher attendance and achievement during the school year, increased motivation and engagement, and increased skill development.

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