July 8th, 2009

Interview: Summer days, drifting away

Now that it’s approaching mid-July, most students–whether in elementary, middle, high school or college–are feeling something slipping. Research (specifically the work of Johns Hopkins’s Karl Alexander) has consistently shown that students who don’t engage in academically enriching activity during summer break will fall behind in reading and math. Sadly, the state of the economy has seen many public schools shut down their summer school programs this year, but that doesn’t mean that exciting academic programs aren’t available, even to lower-income students.

We spoke to Koyen Shah, co-founder and director of the Aspire program in Cleveland, Ohio, about the importance of summer learning for Aspire’s targeted demographic: middle-school girls.

What is the main goal of a program like Aspire?

Since 2002, Aspire has tapped the leadership of girls from under-performing schools in the Cleveland area, helping them expand their educational opportunities. These students face critical concerns: classes where coursework is insufficiently challenging, an alarming achievement gap, risks to self esteem and motivation, large class sizes, lack of summer opportunities, shortage of high quality teachers, a need for high quality mentorship, and insufficient college guidance.

The Aspire Program is a tuition-free academic and leadership program that targets high achieving girls limited in opportunity because of low family income and lack of exposure to higher education. Aspire is a multi-generational environment that offers each student academic training, leadership development, and interaction with over twenty successful high school and college students over a three-year commitment in middle school. During the high school years, Aspire offers programming that increases college access.

At Aspire these students are mentored by a dedicated group of high school and college students whose teaching talent is being cultivated to bring new ideas and change to our schools. The program has established itself as a supportive learning community which offers some of Cleveland’s emerging young leaders highly personalized learning experiences, precisely the type called for as we retool our schools.

Why is Aspire an all-girls program?

We’ve embarked upon a time when many believe that girls are just fine and it is the boys who need the attention of the community. What we have seen here is that girls growing up today face numerous pressures that stand in the way of success. Precisely because the nature of the challenges faced by girls differs from those boys must overcome, an all-girls environment gives girls the space and the mentorship they need to specifically address them. Aspire is a place that empowers girls to re-imagine their futures, inspires girls to voice their opinions, challenges stereotypes, shows girls ways of developing positive relationships, and encourages girls to explore styles of leadership.

Why target middle-schoolers?

Middle school is a time when girls sorely need positive peer influences. In addition, college awareness and exposure during the middle school years enables girls to begin high school knowing more about what is required to be college ready, before missteps regarding course selection, grades, peer group, and attitude become more difficult to re-direct.

Do most graduates of Aspire end up in private and/or boarding high schools? If so, is that something Aspire aims to accomplish?

Only a handful of students in each cohort attends private school. We offer information and advice about high school options to eighth grade Aspire students and their families, answering questions individually whenever possible. When working with students at Aspire, we help girls develop an increased interest and investment in education. Ultimately, we want girls to understand the differences among the options available and take steps to advocate for their needs wherever they go.

Does Aspire, or programs like it, exist outside of Cleveland?

Aspire doesn’t have any other locations, but nationally there are many other organizations committed to expanding educational access. The National Partnership for Educational Access, of which Aspire is a founding member, started in the fall of 2007 to bring such organizations together. Now over 100 organizations belong. The group allows Aspire to share best practices with a wider group of colleagues who are currently working to help underprivileged students, and bring those ideas to Cleveland.


The National Partnership for Educational Access

Stimulus or Not, States are Cutting Summer School (NY Times)

Aspire in the News (The Cleveland Plain Dealer)

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