Grade 9 may be the most important year in a student’s high school experience.

Research shows Grade 9 on-track status is the best predictor of whether a student will graduate from high school within four years. Despite its importance, far too many students struggle with the middle-to-high school transition and experience increased anxiety and disengagement. These feelings may be exacerbated by challenging school experiences over the 14 months during the pandemic, particularly for historically marginalized populations.

Nichelle Woodson

Earlier this year, the Connecticut RISE Network released a research report showing Grade 9 students who enrolled in remote learning had 67 percent lower odds of being on track compared to those who chose hybrid learning. While educators have worked heroically to support students throughout remote and hybrid learning, we know we still have a lot of work ahead to get kids back on track and re-engaged in their school communities.

It has never been more important to think about how we welcome students back to school, particularly during key developmental transitions. The summer months offer a unique opportunity for schools to partner with families, and for educators to build relationships with students.

All high schools in the RISE Network offer rising Grade 9 students the opportunity to engage in no-cost Summer Bridge programs at their new high schools that are staffed by educators. These engaging and hands-on programs focus on relationship-building and high school readiness; we want all participants to feel excited about and prepared for high school after attending Summer Bridge.

While we’ve implemented this strategy for a number of years, it’s never felt more important. We also know that we need to continually make adjustments to meet students where they are. Even last summer, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of students participated in Summer Bridge and credited the program with easing their transitions into high school. Here are some lessons we’ve learned along the way:

  • A day-long orientation isn’t enough. Grade 9 summer bridge programs should be multiple weeks and include academic content, as well as programming to build students’ skills and confidence and create a strong culture among students and school staff.
  • The program should not simply serve as an extension to the school year.  Successful programs balance interdisciplinary skill-building, team-building, and high school readiness.  It’s important for students to build relationships with peers and high school staff and to become familiar with the school building and routines, creating a strong foundation for freshman year.
  • Programs should be staffed by the high school teachers, counselors, and staff students will have as they enter high school, allowing students and staff to build rapport and connections.
  • The program should set students up for success. For example, some schools have included credit-earning opportunities that help students to enter their high school experience already on the path to being on track. Programs prioritize “High School 101” content (e.g., What are credits? How does the high school schedule work? How do you manage your time in high school?) that will help students succeed in and beyond high school.

Schools across the RISE Network have refined their approaches over time and collaboratively design programs that meet their community’s needs.

As a parent, former teacher, and administrator, I’m guessing many people reading this may want this for their school, particularly as we welcome students back to school post-pandemic.  While the program may just seem like good practice, we understand there are a number of barriers and potential obstacles. A large one is funding. Schools need financial resources to successfully execute summer programs. Schools require funds for staffing, transportation, marketing, supplies, and food services costs. Costs, especially with social distancing safety regulations, have increased as schools plan to facilitate in-person programming this summer, ensuring that all students have access.

Last month, Governor Lamont and the State Department of Education identified Summer Enrichment as one of five AccelerateCT priorities, while also directing $11 million in COVID relief and recovery funds toward summer programs. This represents an enormous opportunity for school communities and community-based programs to reimagine and extend summer enrichment offerings.  We must, however, also recognize these funds are short-term. We must work together to organize excellent summer enrichment over the next few months, while also looking to identify long-term funding streams to sustain these efforts.

The next several months will present new challenges and even larger opportunities.  We must work together to organize excellent summer enrichment opportunities with a focus on key moments of transition for our students. At RISE, we are proud to partner with 10 high schools that are pioneering great work through their Summer Bridge programs. We hope their leadership can inspire similar efforts around the state!

Nichelle Woodson is Deputy Director, Freshman Success at CT RISE Network.

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