Tests. Homework. Reading assignments. Morning classes.
In the summer?
To many students at any age, this sounds morally wrong, and maybe a little nightmarish. Summer is the one and only time to finally relax, to hit the beach with books you actually want to read, to put your mind to the things that really matter, like video games and music festivals. The rest of the year is for the academic stuff. Who wants to take a break from school with more school?
Many students, it turns out. For the younger crowd, there is no shortage of educational summer programs providing something more substantial than pool parties or volleyball camp. High school students, however, can take this to the next level by taking on a greater challenge: college courses.
Every summer, several area colleges open their hallowed halls to high school students for select courses. This isn’t school as you know it in a regular academic year. The expectations are higher and the workload may be heavier, but the classes are smaller and shorter, the material is geared to special interests, and with other academic pressures alleviated, the experience might even be – gasp – enjoyable. While some students had been dreading the start of this school year, others are ready for whatever it may bring, after supplementing – not sacrificing – their summer with higher education.
The most obvious advantage to these summer classes is the chance to get ahead for the upcoming school year. Just ask Jameela Goodloe, a sophomore at the Health Sciences Charter School. At age 14, Jameela already knows that math is one of her defining passions, and she’s considering a career in business or finance. So this summer, while taking a business class through her school, she also studied math at SUNY Buffalo State’s STEP (Science and Technology Entry Program), which offers math, science and technology classes to economically challenged students. At STEP, Jameela got more personal attention than she would in the average classroom: She was one of only five students in the class, and she had immediate access to a one-on-one tutor.
“It helps you prepare for a future life in math,” Jameela said. “Having that extra help really prepares you for the next step.”
Before STEP, Jameela was “OK” at geometry – the subject she focused on this summer – but now she’s shaped her skills more than she could have during the school year. While she said that “it would be good to take off” some time over the summer, she never regretted the commitment – and she can tell how much it will help her this year.
“When I come back to school, I already have the benefit of being prepared for what’s going on,” she said. “I’ll be more confident, and I know that. I’ll always have my hand raised, confident in the answer.”
Getting ahead is a huge advantage in itself. But some programs offer that advantage with a twist: the opportunity to pursue something that high school doesn’t offer. Kelsey Ables, a senior at Nardin Academy, and Matthew Fabian, a senior at St. Francis High School in Athol Springs, participated in the University at Buffalo’s Advanced College Credit Program, which lets high schoolers take college-level courses for early college credits. For Kelsey and Matthew, though, credits were only part of the equation – the classes were the real catch.
Kelsey took a class in art history, which covered everything from the Renaissance to contemporary works. Having traveled the world and visited some of its best art galleries, the 17-year-old was inspired to learn more and wanted to see da Vinci and Raphael through the eyes of a true art historian. School requirements didn’t leave much time to feast on centuries of art history – after all, you don’t need to know that stuff for standardized tests. But at UB, she could finally pursue her passion, on her own terms.
“Even if it’s not practical, I wake up every day excited to do the work,” said Kelsey, who noted that several of her friends took college courses in math or science this summer. “It’s not worth my time if it’s something I’m not as excited about.”
Through regular homework and reading assignments (“Only 40-ish pages”) and weekly lectures – complete with slideshows and in-depth discussions of important works – Kelsey got the next best thing, a globe-spanning art exhibit, in just one summer.
“It’s like I get to go to a museum for two hours, three days a week,” she said.
Matthew, meanwhile, mixed passion and practicality by taking classes in physics and psychology. After completing a physics course in his junior year, Matthew wanted to delve more deeply into it. Since his schedule moved him right along the standard science curriculum, he made physics a summer project – it was “almost like a fun class,” he said. Psychology, meanwhile, was an intellectual whim – something that may not lead to a career but still captured his curiosity. That became his other summer project.
“Psychology is how we act and interact with other people. It’s always interested me,” said Matthew, 17. “It was something I could do this summer, and I’m glad I took advantage of the opportunity.”
Most of Kelsey and Matthew’s classmates were college students, and the two admitted to sometimes feeling out of their depth. But with no daily reminders of tests or assignments, they learned to take responsibility for their own education – a college-level skill that will pay off in their final year of high school.
“It’s pretty much what college would be like, and I get to experience it before I go off to college for the next four years,” Matthew said. “That could only be a great help for my senior year.”
Jodi White and Dan Konopski, who graduated from Grand Island High School this year, also can speak to those advantages. The two met and remained friends through Canisius College’s Teen Writing Workshop, a creative writing seminar for high school students. Jodi joined the workshop four years ago, when she was 14, and has returned for every summer since; Dan joined one year after her and did the same. When they started the program, they weren’t yet worrying about academic performance or career goals – teen awkwardness was their biggest issue.
“Before I took this camp, I really struggled with a voice, finding a voice for myself,” Jodi said. “This camp gave me that voice and showed me what I can do. I’m not a shy person, but my writing was shy.”
Jodi and Dan worked on finding that voice every summer. The Teen Writing Workshop was a more experimental and encouraging environment than high school English. The students practiced everything from free-form poetry to stream-of-consciousness writing to autobiographical pieces, with no regard for grades or rankings. They spent lunch breaks discussing Shakespeare. The class took short field trips around the city to get ideas, and for homework, they were asked to consider what inspires them to write. Most importantly, the students extensively workshopped each other’s writing, and they openly shared their hopes and hesitations for their work. After each summer, Jodi and Dan knew they had grown – as writers and as individuals.
“It was a great outlet for all the creative thoughts somebody has but didn’t know how to express,” Dan said. “I just loved being in that environment, where people say, ‘Here’s what I like and what I don’t like,’ and we make everything as close to perfect as possible. … It’s really about getting kids to break their shells.”
When the friends started each new school year, these lessons stayed with them, whether they were writing creative prose, formal assignments or standardized essays. When it came time for college application essays – the most personal and most punishing pieces high school students have to write – Jodi and Dan could tackle them creatively and confidently. Now that the two are 18 and college-bound – Jodi is attending SUNY Fredonia, while Dan has headed to Niagara University – they’re not worried about what the next school year might bring.
“Every class requires writing, having something to say. It’s always going to be a skill that you’ll need in every walk of life,” Dan said. “Now I’ll go off and start life again, but keep the same basic tools that I learned here.”
Asked what was the biggest benefit of his summer learning, Dan replied simply: “Confidence.”
“I never thought of this as work,” he continued. “This was fun for me. There was so much going on in my head, and here is where you find out what kind of person you are.”
That’s something you can’t get from summers at the beach.