Lainey Johnson helps us understand how after school programs can open up new opportunities.
“Have you thought about what you want to accomplish by December?” It was six weeks into my time in Baltimore when my supervisor asked me this question. On a beautiful Thursday evening we were outside enjoying the first simple, peaceful moment after a long day at camp, watching the rising high school students write letters to themselves to be opened in 4 months, exactly one semester into their high school careers. These letters were to be a personal reminder of exactly what they wanted to accomplish in their first bit of time as high school students. I stood on top the highest point on St. Paul’s School campus, overlooking athletic fields, academic buildings, and perhaps one of the most beautiful views of the rolling hills surrounding Baltimore, a beauty that is hard to see and appreciate when grounded in the middle of the city. I looked around and all 14 rising 9th graders scattered along the hill were taking in the same view. At that moment, we were together as one – we were all contemplating our future, reflecting on the summer, and enjoying the peace that is rare not just in Baltimore, but in the constant hustle and bustle of life as a teenager and young adult. In the few minutes of quiet that followed, I thought about my summer, how I had spent the preceding six weeks and how that would change my outlook, worldview and goals in the future.
The expansiveness of the Bridges program is not dissimilar to the view from St. Paul’s. There are distinct long-term missions and goals: beautiful, idealistic, and expansive. But all of these goals are executed on a more day-to-day basis: the hills and valleys, trees and plants, each individual one being vital to the big picture view.
Bridges recruits motivated students from Baltimore City Public Schools out of 3rd grade. The year at Bridges begins with the five-week summer program for rising 4th graders through rising 12th graders. The rising 10th, 11th, and 12th grade students are part of the high school program while 4th-9th grade students are a part of the elementary and middle school summer institute. All students, 4th-12th grade, came to Bridges on Monday. High school students took three classes: SAT prep, essay writing, and guidance and speakers. Students learn important academic skills and are also prompted by volunteer speakers to think about their personal goals and aspirations through high school and college. For the rest of the week, Bridges places high school students with job partners throughout the city. Students gain valuable job and life experience and develop interpersonal skills.
While high school students are out in the working world, elementary and middle school students spend all week at Bridges. Students spend their mornings in two academic classes – language arts and math. These courses are taught by teachers from Baltimore city that have the experience, motivation, and dedication to improve the academic skills of young students. After lunch, students participate in a variety of entertaining and enriching activities. On Thursday, all grades go on a field trip planned around Bridges’ weekly theme. I attended all of the seventh grade field trips, which included a tubing adventure in West Virginia and volunteering at a local school for children with disabilities.
Bridges is entirely privately funded, including a crucial partnership with St. Paul’s School, a private school about ten miles north of the heart of Baltimore City. St. Paul’s School offers the use of facilities and services in addition to providing volunteers and staff members throughout the year. Bridges also benefits from the time of many caring, compassionate, and passionate individuals. The job partners for high school students teach valuable lessons in professionalism, interpersonal skills, and personal growth and development. Teachers and mentors invest time in being positive role models and life coaches for Bridges’ students.
Bridges has no income or eligibility requirement. It accepts students who will take advantage of opportunities that otherwise may not exist. Many Bridges students lack some sort of disposable income, adequate family support, or other educational opportunities, but each student differs. Bridges seeks to supplement the students’ opportunities in three areas: home support, quality of education, and surrounding people and peers. Students in need will not all benefit from identical treatment, so Bridges develops programming distinctive to each student’s needs. Bridges meets students and families with what they can bring to the table and builds on the strengths of both the parents and the students.
The expansiveness of the Bridges program astounded me. In addition to summer programming, 4th-12th grade students receive similar support year-round, including afterschool tutoring and weekend mentoring. The opportunities that Bridges provides to students are incredible. Every student, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, gender, ethnicity, and family situation would benefit from participation in a program like Bridges. This leaves us with two harsh realities: these programs and opportunities are not available to all students and those to which these programs are available do always not capitalize on the opportunity. Children need support, they need individual attention, they need life advice, and they need job experience (just to scratch the surface). These are things that public schools simply cannot provide. This is why Bridges exists and why programs like Bridges would be beneficial if expanded.
Throughout my summer, I experienced moments of attention-grabbing beauty, clarity and purpose in the midst of days and hours when it was hard to see past the minute details of working with such an expansive long-term program. At Bridges, I saw it when I helped a ninth grader swim for the first time. I saw it when a fifth grader told me he was proud of himself for the progress he made. I saw it when a seventh grader whispered a simple ‘thank you’ on the way home from our tubing trip, a terrifying experience for him that I helped him navigate. I saw it when another seventh grader overcame her immense fear of embarrassment and completed a perfect step team routine with six other girls before a large audience. These small moments of beauty make Bridges a program that is enabling opportunity for many of Baltimore’s children. It’s important to take a step back from the daily grind to think about all that can be accomplished now and in the future for children denied what others have routinely been given. We need glimpses of the daily beauty that emerge in programs with long-term goals for middle and high school students that are able, with tailored support, to accomplish more for themselves and society than we might initially imagine.