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New York City
April 2002

Students Teaching Students: Summerbridge at the Town School
By Marie Holmes

“I was really scared,” says Rachel Berk, recalling her first day of teaching. “I felt like I was kind of out of my element.”

Like many new teachers, she had come into New York City from the suburbs, unsure of exactly what she had gotten herself into.

On this nerve-wracking first day of class, the teacher was 17 years old.

Berk was a faculty member at Summerbridge at the Town School: A Breakthrough Program, a year-long effort to help prepare middle-school students for high-school. The program’s focus is a full-time summer school session, housed in the private Upper East Side elementary school in New York City.

A second goal of the program, and its defining characteristic, is to encourage young people to enter the field of education – not with scholarship money or loan deferment, but by throwing them into the classroom.

Last year’s Summer staff included students, most originally from New York City, who attend 18 different colleges and universities including NYU, the University of Chicago, Harvard, and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Summerbridge teaching alums have gone on to the Peace Corps, Teach for America and other fast-track certification programs.

One student switched her major from finance to education after teaching at Summerbridge.

Berk, who comes from a family of teachers, says that she came to Summerbridge to “prove to myself that I didn’t want to be a teacher – and the exact opposite happened.” Now a first-year at NYU, she plans to major in education.

Motivated students, a 7:1 student-teacher ratio, and a team-teaching model seem sufficient to turn dedicated young people into effective teachers.

“What they lack in experience they make up for in enthusiasm,” says Sam Marks, the program director.

Berk also credits the sense of community that the program fosters among its faculty. “For me it worked because the support was there,” she says. “My favorite part of Summerbridge is when I feel like we’re working together and I’m not just alone as a teacher.”

The success of the program also hinges on the creativity of its staff, who all design their own elective courses. Examples include Comics as Literature, the History of Hip-Hop, and To Infinity and Beyond – an entire course devoted to the intangible mathematical concept.

One of the benefits of being a Summerbridge student, says Marks, is “being involved in this peer group that really cares about learning,” particularly since middle-school students have difficulty relating their schoolwork to their futures.

“The teachers,” says Jennifer Chicon, a ninth-grader who has been a Summerbridge student for the past two years, “are also students – they can relate to the same things we’re going through.”

Summerbridge recruits its students from 10 different middle-schools in East Harlem, the Upper West Side and the Lower East Side, resulting in an ethnically diverse group.

“We target students who can demonstrate that this would be a great opportunity for them,” explains Marks. Because Summerbridge is tuition-free, they also seek out students who wouldn’t have the opportunity to attend other summer programs.

Students make a two-year commitment to attend the summer sessions as well as weekly tutoring and monthly Saturday School events throughout the school year. When they are in the 8th grade, Summerbridge staff aid students and their families in the high-school application process. Most remain in the public school system.

While there are a number of programs that aid low-income students gain admission to private schools, this is not one of Summerbridge’s goals. “Where [the students] end up is not the story we tell,” says Marks.

In addition to the intriguing elective courses, which Chicon says make the experience “much more fun,” students are also required to take English, math and writing classes.

Berk says that she watched her students’ writing skills improve dramatically over the course of the summer, and Chicon credits the personalized instruction she got at Summerbridge with improving her understanding of math.

What struck Berk most, however, was the change she saw in her students’ confidence levels. As the summer progressed, she says, even the more shy students began to “get up and read their writing, to raise their hands and argue, to speak their own ideas in front of people.”

“The program,” adds Berk, “provides a safe environment for the kids to express themselves and their opinions.” Berk’s own experience shows that Summerbridge gives future teachers an opportunity to test the waters without feeling that they are doomed to either sink or swim.

The first Summerbridge program, which was established at the University High School in San Francisco in 1978, has grown into a national network, soon to be known as Breakthrough, which currently serves students in 26 locations in the US. The Town School began hosting its program in 1999, several years after New York City’s first Summerbridge program was established in the Bronx.#


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