Summer Bridge prepares students for advanced classes

8/31/2016 | TACOMA, Washington

The school year hasn’t started yet, but Stadium High School physics teacher Don Crider stands in his classroom before a crowd of students pounding on their desks. 

He’s not facing a mutiny. The students gathered in Crider’s classroom slap the tables in a rousing drumroll to kick off the first session of Summer Bridge, a new three-day program in Tacoma’s comprehensive high schools to support students enrolled in advanced classes. 

​Stadium High School Advanced Placement Physics teacher
Don Crider leads Summer Bridge students in a
drumroll to kick off the program.
​ ​​​​
After the drumroll, students play an icebreaker game to get to know each other and dive in to strategies for handling rigorous coursework they will face when school starts Sept. 7. 

Scenes like this unfolded across Tacoma high schools in late August, as students volunteered to come to school early to prepare for advanced programs such as International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement classes. 

It might sound counterintuitive to provide a prep class for high achievers. But Tacoma Public Schools is one of only two school districts in the state that automatically enrolls students in advanced programs if they pass lower-level classes. In other school districts, students choose to enroll in advanced programs. In Tacoma Public Schools, many more students take advanced courses who otherwise would never think of themselves as willing—or capable. 

“We want to help advanced students be more prepared for the classes they’re in,” said Diane Colclough, AP Chemistry teacher and one of five teachers running Stadium’s program. “It’s a way to get everybody on the same page about the skills needed to be successful in an advanced class so they can do their best.”

Students enrolled in advanced programs are more likely to graduate high school and attend college, be better prepared for college course work and have the potential to earn college credit, according to The College Board, the national organization that administers the SAT and Advanced Placement exams. 

Tacoma’s School Board set increasing the number of students enrolled in rigorous high school as a priority benchmark for improving academic achievement. In the last three years, the district experienced a major increase in the number of students enrolled in advanced classes, from 32.9 percent of high school juniors and seniors in the 2012-2013 school year to 64.9 percent in 2015-2016.

Summer Bridge aims to help students in two ways: by providing practical tips and introducing students to a community of teachers and fellow students where they feel welcome. 

To prepare for more challenging course work, teachers explain how to take good notes, handle increased homework, read analytically and collaborate with each other. During other portions of the day, students receive T-shirts and free lunches catered by local restaurants, and teachers joke with students and run problem-solving games. 

“We’re focusing on building a sense of belonging, building connections so they feel part of a group even if they’re not in the same class,” said Stadium AP Language Arts teacher Connie Wyma, who co-leads a Summer Bridge session with Crider. 

​Stadium High School students participate in Summer Bridge.
​​​​​​​​​​​In Crider’s classroom, students get to know each other by filling out large manila cards. After writing their name in the center, they draw five pictures that represent themselves and write in the name of the middle school they attended, a dream travel location and the name of the last movie they saw. 

Crider asks students to sort themselves into groups based on T-shirt style and then gets each student to know the names of the others in the group.

“Community is really important,” Crider tells the students. “Use this time to get to know people and make friends. And know that Ms. Wyma and I will always be here for you if you feel pressured or overwhelmed.”

Sophomore Nic Huse said he participated in Summer Bridge at the encouragement of one of his teachers. He’s taking his first advanced English class this year and expects a bigger workload. 

“I hope it will go well, and I’ll have time for other activities, like cross-country and wrestling,” Huse said. “I hope Summer Bridge gives me an inside look at what’s going on with advanced classes.”

Stadium Principal Kevin Ikeda said that even if students don’t realize it, the focus of Summer Bridge and advanced classes isn’t just on academic content, but on teaching crucial skills like collaboration and problem solving. “Those are the actual skills you use in the workforce. Through this venue we want to take kids to a college and career performance-level.”