Though summer school often implies relentless hours of absorbing an entire academic year of information in just a few weeks, a collaboration of Pasadena nonprofits has devised an effective mix of credit recovery, fun and life lessons to keep local kids focused and coming back for more.
In fact, SKILLZ Summer School might best be described as summer camp-meets-credit recovery, with caring adults and lifelong connections thrown into the mix, for 7th and 8th graders throughout the Pasadena Unified School District. Those students, about 110 this summer, all have two things in common: They are failing classes and are considered to be at risk of dropping out of high school. Held on the large Lake Avenue Church campus, the program provides a safe, enjoyable alternative for at-risk youth during the summer.
“We have a living program, for sure — times change and we are always adjusting the curriculum to ensure it stays relevant to the environment and the trends that the students are experiencing,” said Christy Zamani, executive director of youth advocacy organization Day One.
SKILLZ is a joint effort by the nonprofit organizations Flintridge Center, Stars (formerly known as Lake Avenue Community Foundation) and Day One, with other key partners including College Access Plan, PUSD — which has discontinued summer school — and Planned Parenthood. The five-week program offers 10 credits of recovery, the equivalent of two classes, with an emphasis on pre-algebra to help improve math skills and prepare freshmen for high school-level courses. Students who struggle in math in middle school often find it hard to catch up once course work becomes more difficult, increasing the risk that they will drop out, Zamani said. Classes are kept to about 20 students, with tutors on hand to provide extra support.
At a recent wrap-up to this summer’s program, the throng of students excitedly gathered at Lake Avenue Church’s hall to play a competitive round of “Jeopardy” to test their knowledge of vocabulary learned from this summer’s reading assignment, the biography of Frederick Douglass. Laughter, applause and groans reached fever pitch as teams volleyed questions about the book. After the winner was declared, hip-hop music filled the hall and students chatted happily before dismissing for lunch.
“Today we do a taco cart, it’s one of their favorite lunch days,” said pastor Eric Johnson, noting the best way to a teenager’s heart is through the stomach. As director of partnerships and collaborations for Stars, Johnson helps bring all the pieces of the program together, serving as principal, counselor and administrator.
About 90% of SKILLZ students are considered to be from low-income families and qualify for the federal National School Lunch Program. Many are failing multiple classes, which also often stems from problems at home, Johnson said. Some of the students’ low economic standing also negatively affects their studies.
One boy, Zamani recalled, consistently put his head down in class, a sign most teachers might interpret as “he doesn’t care and is disrespectful.”
But after some trust-building, the boy confided that he gets up every day at 3 a.m. to help his dad paint houses before he comes to school. There are many other similar stories, Zamani noted, with other children left entirely in charge of younger siblings while their parents work, unable to complete homework due to those responsibilities.
Other issues facing students might be as simple as a child’s loss of glasses — the student then unable to see the board during class and to afford a new pair. Zamani can connect students with other area nonprofits that offer health-care support.
“Our whole premise is creating an environment of love where they can thrive; I tell them that every day. I want them to succeed and learn the tools to live a happy life, but without a high school education that gets further away,” Zamani said. “We can’t change their circumstances but we can try to help them learn to work around them.”
To enter SKILLZ, students must undergo an interview process in which coordinators equate the program to a $1,000 scholarship. The program has a waiting list of up to 50 kids per summer, so if a student isn’t attending class, SKILLZ will exercise its right to drop that child and bring in someone else. Parents also undergo an orientation, so they know how to help support their children and keep expectations of them at home realistic.
“The interview process really allows us to keep [the kids] in check if they’re not living up to the expectations we agreed upon,” she added.
Having just completed its ninth summer, SKILLZ also offers a life skills curriculum in the morning session, which often includes a health and sex education workshop held by Planned Parenthood, as well as workshops to enable students to deal with challenges such as dating violence and goal-setting. With more than 40 years of working with underserved youth throughout the Pasadena area, Johnson has created sessions that address self-worth, anxiety, anger, conflict resolution and past traumas that might impede their success.
“Talking about these issues really allows students to open up and confront what is conflicting them … there are a lot of issues at stake. Our oldest child was only 13, yet you realize they’ve been dealing with this stuff for quite some time.
“A common thread that we hear all the time is that students wish school was like this all the time,” he said. “Students are allowed to express themselves — we listen to them and then we lovingly push back, we say we hear what you’re saying but we expect greater things than what you’ve shown.”
Johnson shares his personal story with the children as well, which helps them to understand how they might move forward after suffering trauma and failure at school. Johnson came through a childhood of abuse and molestation to find success and happiness as an adult.
“I tell them we’re going to talk about the ‘F’ word, and boy, that gets their attention. Then I tell them we’re going to talk about the ‘MF’ word and they get really excited,” Johnson said, laughing.
The words to which Johnson refers are “forgiveness” and “moving forward.”
“The only way to make their lives better will be to confront those issues that might be triggering their anger, their resentment, holding them back,” he said. “I tell them: The only way your life will be better is if you are motivated by your dream and surround yourself [with those] who are going to help protect your dream. I want them to know what their dream is, what kind of life they want to have and then let that motivate them. Make all the choices they have to in order to protect that.”
In addition to the classroom courses, students are matched with after-school programs during the school year, given free meals and access to social workers on site to support their emotional needs.
SKILLZ programming also counts on former students to come back to the program as leaders when they reach high school and even college. It gives the younger kids role models, as well as teaching former students how to give back as they move forward.
Gabriella Villegas was a former SKILLZ student who came back this summer to help facilitate classes. Back in middle school, she attended SKILLZ for three summers after being suspended often and failing classes during the regular school year. Now in her second year at UC Berkeley, Villegas looks back and sees how much SKILLZ, and later Day One, helped her get on the right academic path.
“Back then, I didn’t really care and I didn’t see why I should. I never had teachers who believed in me, the teachers didn’t care; they just barked orders and gave directions. I was just really cut off from everyone,” said Villegas, who is majoring in genetics and plant biology with a minor in public health. “Here, the adults really try to get to know you, and you feel it — you feel they care and want the best for you. It makes you want to do better.”
Stars Executive Director Nancy Stiles highlighted the success of SKILLZ for the students, the community and the schools. The program has stepped in to fill the void left by PUSD budget cuts.
“SKILLZ is one of those great examples of collaborations done well in this city, it’s been phenomenal,” Stiles said. “The team that has come together delivers a really great product and robust curriculum. Yes, the students reclaim credits, but the life skills and relationships they develop with these caring adults is what really make a long-term difference.”