Oscar Acabal struggled at the start of middle school. Then he found Aim High and went from frustrated student to academic success. He will be the first in his family to attend college at University of California Santa Cruz.
Alec Lee founded Aim High to provide a different kind of learning experience for students in high-need communities—one that would help stem learning loss over the summer and catch students at risk during the critical transition time of middle school.
“Research shows that kids fall behind in math, literacy, creativity, and critical thinking during the summer,” says Alec, executive director of Aim High in San Francisco. “Learning loss is especially acute for poor kids with few opportunities for enrichment.” The research also shows that middle school is a time of transition. Students who do not build a foundation for learning will struggle to complete high school.
Oscar Acabel was one of those students who started middle school and fell behind in academics. “I was not understanding math completely,” he said. “I was not competent in my writing and I had social problems as well.” His mother saw a billboard for Aim High and convinced Oscar to try it. He did not want to give up his summer, but he agreed. After a week, he was hooked.
Aim High makes a 3- to 4-year commitment to the students it accepts into the free, 5-week summer learning program. The program combines rigorous academics in the morning with enrichment activities in the afternoon. Students choose from electives such as sports, drama, art, poetry, bike repair, calligraphy, film making, and field trips. Each class has a qualified, lead teacher, a teaching assistant (TA), and a cadre of volunteers to help students stay on track.
Students are recruited from local schools and accepted based on a risk rubric.
Aim High teachers are qualified, committed role models.
“My grades and my attitude completely changed because of Aim High,” says Oscar. “My teachers constantly pushed me to do better. Each year, I tried to push myself to do better.” Oscar spent his summers at Aim High through middle school, and returned as a volunteer first and then as a TA.
High expectations, one-to-one attention, and a strong sense of community create a different type of learning environment for students. One-third of teachers and volunteers are former Aim High students who become role models for the next generation. According to Alec: “We believe that our model lends itself to sparking students and engaging them. For the vast majority of our kids, it’s the first time they get excited and inspired about learning and success in school.”
“We dare to be different,” says Alec. Along with math, science, and language arts, students take an “issues and choices” class. They tackle tough choices like drugs and alcohol use and are guided toward making the best academic decisions to prepare for careers and college. Group games, rituals, and the multi-year commitment build a human network among students and alumni for support the rest of the year.
Students call the culture the "Aim High Magic." Teachers and staff create an atmosphere where youth feel safe, welcomed and nurtured, an environment where they can truly develop a love of learning. Each day begins with a circle where everyone is welcomed and acknowledged, no matter who they are, where they came from, or how well they speak English.
A survey of students found that:
Since its founding in 1986 in San Francisco, Aim High has grown to deliver 15 programs throughout the San Francisco Bay Area with 443 teachers and 1600 students in 2014. The success of the program can be measured in the low attrition rate and near-perfect attendance for students at most campuses. Each year, they must turn away many qualified applicants due to lack of space in the program.
Aim High is funded by grants from foundations and through community support. In 2012, Aim High received a San Francisco Community Foundation Leadership Award for "for closing the achievement gap through programs that inspire a love of learning and a strong sense of community." In 2013, Cisco awarded a Silicon Valley Community Impact Cash Grant to Aim High to support programs in Redwood City and East Palo Alto, attended by 160 middle school students. Cisco has awarded six such grants to Aim High since 2006.
“If I had not gone to Aim High, I probably would not be who I am today,” says Oscar. “I will be the first in my family to go to college and I’m going to attend UC Santa Cruz. It’s been a huge battle and I feel like I’ve come out victorious.”
VIDEO: Oscar Acabal’s Story
VIDEO: What is the Aim High Magic?