If he wasn’t at school this summer, 13-year-old LaMonte McKenzie figures he’d probably be at home, bored, “and not knowing about all these colleges.”
LaMonte, who enters eighth grade this fall, is one of more than three dozen boys taking part in the Male Improvement Program, a cooperative effort of the Urban League of Tacoma, the YMCA and Tacoma Public Schools.
MIP students gathered for six weeks this summer at First Creek Middle School on Tacoma’s East Side. They’ve explored area college campuses, heard speakers talk about careers, mastered new study skills and learned nonviolent ways to resolve conflicts. Each day started with physical activity, designed to get the blood flowing and the brain engaged.
First Creek’s summertime MIP, now in its last week, is aimed at one of the toughest audiences in education: middle school boys. These are the grades when academic problems often bubble to the surface, and even kids who do OK in middle school can stumble when they begin high school.
A recent study by University of Washington researchers that tracked Tacoma students over time showed a pattern in which grades dropped significantly between eighth and ninth grades – a pattern they labeled “ninth-grade shock.” The researchers noted that “disadvantaged and minority students are very likely to experience the ninth-grade shock, but the pattern affects students from all backgrounds.”
Boys seem to struggle more than girls, educators say. Add in factors such as poverty and minority status, and the problems compound.
First Creek Principal Brad Brown said summer is when the achievement gap grows. He’s talking about the well-documented national trend in which minority and low-income kids as a whole tend to score lower on standardized tests, take less-challenging classes and experience more school failure.
MIP is just one way that Brown and other Tacoma educators work to close that gap and help more kids succeed. In addition to MIP, First Creek this year offered an academic summer school for more than 150 students.
At Lincoln High School, which is where most First Creek graduates are headed, one summer program focused on English language learners; another was designed to ease the transition from middle school to high school.
The two-week transition program focused on boosting math, reading and study skills for incoming ninth-graders. It also offered them a chance to tour and write about Lincoln’s historic century-old building and learn the location of everything from the lunchroom to the library.
Aamira Turner, 14, who will enter Lincoln from Stewart Middle School, acknowledged being nervous about starting high school. But she said the summer program helped calm some of her freshman jitters.
“I understand where a lot of my classes are,” she said. “I learned where to get help when I need it.”
Vanessa Castro, 14, who comes to Lincoln from First Creek, said the transition program helped her meet new people.
“I learned a lot about high school,” she said. “I feel more prepared.”
Lincoln Co-Principal Pat Erwin said his students also suffer from an “opportunity gap.”
Their world is often limited to the East Side – a neighborhood whose after-school programs have been cut in recent years. Most kids in his high-poverty school lack out-of-school educational experiences that their middle-class peers enjoy.
For most Lincoln kids, he said, there are no private music lessons or summer vacations to historic or culturally significant locations.
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” he said. “Kids need to be exposed to what they can be. We want to take kids into businesses and on to college campuses.”
To that end, he and Brown are reaching beyond school walls to community organizations such as neighborhood churches.
Lincoln and First Creek educators helped organize a parent and youth summit last spring. Teachers and kids from Eastside elementary schools that send kids to First Creek were invited to visit the middle school. Lincoln school counselors went to First Creek to walk students through a typical high school class schedule and talk to parents about the importance of preparing their kids for high school.
“Part of it is just changing the mindset of our kids,” said Erwin. “It’s teaching them to be accountable. It’s teaching them how to win in the classroom, in the hallways, out in the community or on the playing field.”