Aim High Magic

by Lisa Wesel

Photos by Seth Affoumado

magic hand

For 20 years, Alec Lee '80 has been bringing his brand of magic to high school students in underserved populations. Perhaps it is a different kind of power—one bred at Bowdoin—that keeps bringing others into the Aim High fold.

There are parts of San Francisco where the tour guides won't go and the cable cars don't run, where even a taxi is hard to find. The poverty is intense, and the crime is brutal. In neighborhoods ruled by gangs, children consider what colored clothes to wear so they don't imply allegiance to the wrong thugs whose streets they travel to and from school. Even families with the best intentions find it hard to be hopeful for their children.

But there is magic there, too. Each summer, hundreds of middle-school kids, many from the city's roughest public schools, attend Aim High, a tuition-free summer school program co-founded 20 years ago by Alec Lee Jr. '80.

Based on the model of Upward Bound, Aim High takes disadvantaged students who have academic potential but few prospects, and inspires them to trust themselves and to love learning. The program offers counseling to them and their families when it comes time to apply to high school and college. (Students in the San Francisco's public school system must apply to enroll in the school of their choice, even elementary school.) Their success is remarkable: 95 percent of Aim High graduates complete high school—in a city where the overall graduation rate is just 60 percent—and 90 percent enroll in college.

For the first 17 years, Aim High was largely a one-man operation. As the program grew, Lee surrounded himself with a cadre of dedicated and like-minded co-workers and board members. Somehow—depending on whether you believe more in coincidence or kismet—several other Bowdoin alums have found their way to Aim High: Laura Foulke '91, director of development; Suzanne Alpert '92, a former Aim High teacher and site director; and Ed Poole '82, an attorney who serves on the board of directors. And at least one Aim High graduate, Haliday Douglas '05, ended up enrolling at Bowdoin and now works for Aim High, completing the circle. All of them say they knew nothing about the Bowdoin connection until after they had signed on with Aim High.

Alec Lee Jr.
Alec Lee Jr. '80

The common thread is no mystery to Poole, who joined the board of Aim High in 2001. Several years earlier, Poole had attended an Aim High open house after a family foundation run by Leslie Tang Schilling, the wife of Poole's Bowdoin classmate Andy Schilling, made a major donation to the summer program.

"I was impressed by the fact that they were providing an intensive educational program in the summer that truly inspires the kids to stay in school," Poole said. "These kids learn to love the teaching profession, so they come back to Aim High as mentors.

"In that model, I see Bowdoin's commitment to producing teachers," he said. "When I was at Bowdoin, there was a real emphasis on giving back to the community. My interest in serving on a board for education is directly related to Bowdoin. To me, there's a nice, clear line between what Bowdoin does and what Alec does."

Foulke agrees. "We are somehow like-minded, and interested in the same things," she said. "We want to give back. We're drawn to this work in some way.

“We help our kids not feel lost. We help our kids understand that they're safe.” —Alec Lee Jr. '80

"My desire to be a part of something bigger than myself was a huge part of Bowdoin," Foulke said. "I had incredible relationships with professors, and I really took advantage of that. It was very powerful, and gave me a love of teaching and learning. I remember coming out of classes at Bowdoin with my heart racing because I was so revved up about it."

Students say they feel the same way about their days at Aim High. You'd think it would hard to convince kids to get up early on a sparkling summer morning and take an hour-long bus ride to summer school, but Aim High students look forward to it all year.

"School kind of dragged on, but Aim High blew by fast," said Carlos Carranza, a freshman at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who attended Aim High for two summers, and taught there when he was in high school. "I was working my brain in different ways, not staring at a chalkboard. It let me open my mind and took me out of my comfort zone.

"It was my mom's idea to go, to keep my mind flowing over the summer," he said. "You're always learning, so why stop in the summer?"

Suzanne-Alpert '92
Suzanne-Alpert '92

The son of Guatemalan immigrants, Carlos is the first person in his family to go to college. Now he's maintaining a 3.0 grade point average and considering a career in biological engineering.

"I like the balance between science and technology and computers," he said. "That's the future."

The teachers at Aim High get the same energy from the program as the students. Alpert has been teaching science at a private high school for 14 years. She started teaching at Aim High in 1997.

"I was looking for something to do over the summer that was enriching and meaningful," she said. "I've heard teachers say that they live summer to summer because working at Aim High is so rewarding."

Lee found his own inspiration in the classes of associate history Prof. John Karl, who retired from Bowdoin in 1997. After earning a master's degree in education from Harvard, Lee followed his future wife back to her hometown of San Francisco and began teaching history at Lick-Wilmerding, a private college-preparatory high school.

In 1986, Lee and a fellow teacher won a two-year grant to develop a summer program for middle school students based on the "small school" model. Lee had worked for Upward Bound in Michigan for four years with Ben Snyder '80, his closest friend at Bowdoin. He saw the difference a program like that can make in the life of a high school student, but Lee wanted to reach even younger kids.

"There is a ton of research showing that middle school is a critical juncture in kids' lives, especially urban kids," he said. "The pressure with urban poverty is so intense, and they are so impressionable at that time. The shift from fifth grade to sixth grade, from a small intimate place to a big middle school, is jarring, and it's exacerbated by urban poverty."

“We want to give back. We're drawn to this work in some way.” —Laura Foulke '91

Lee, who was named the 1998 Distinguished Bowdoin Educator by the Bowdoin College Alumni Association, kept applying for more grants and raising more money to keep Aim High alive. He continued to teach as Aim High grew, leaving to run the non-profit full time only five years ago. After serving 5,000 students, the program continues to grow each year, but the philosophy and structure remain largely the same as he originally envisioned it. Students are selected based on need; preference is given to students in under-served areas and those who will represent the first generation in their family to attend college.

Each summer, 200 teachers from public and private schools in the Bay Area, college interns and Aim High graduates who are still in high school come for a week of training at one of the nine Aim High sites, that are either rented or borrowed free of charge from public and private schools. The professional teachers serve as "master teachers" and mentors to their college- and high-school-age assistants, most of whom are Aim High graduates.

At the beginning, Aim High hired only master teachers and high school interns, but the program grew almost as soon as it opened, and they could not afford to hire enough additional master teachers. They turned to college interns, and became more deliberate about the goal of teacher training.

"It became a teaching laboratory," Lee said. "Master teachers get the chance to mentor, to show that teaching is a craft."

Ed Poole
Ed Poole '82

For the next five weeks, they teach from 8:15 a.m. to 3:15 p.m., one master teacher and at least one assistant for each class of 15 students.

"It's the quintessential small-school model," Lee explained. "It's project-based learning with small classes and a curriculum that is engaging and culturally relevant."

"A lot of these kids come from large classrooms," Alpert said. "It's hard to feel like you're a contributing member of a classroom if you're in with 34 other kids."

"Every child is known and loved," a teaching intern said in a documentary about Aim High. "They want to be here because they have a voice, sometimes for the first time. We only have five weeks, but we pull miracles out of the sky."

Each day begins with a rousing assembly, and includes a class called "Issues and Choices," which gives the students a safe forum to talk about the issues that are important to them.

The curriculum for each session is based on a different theme for each grade. One summer, the ninth-graders might explore the theme of "neighborhoods," for example, and everything from math to social sciences to writing will relate to that theme. They might do an oral history project interviewing people from their neighborhood, and create a science invention that would benefit the community.

And that's just the classroom part.

The program also contains a strong environmental education component, which can be the most challenging part of the summer for kids who have never been across the Golden Gate Bridge, or have never set foot in a state park or in the woods.

"There are kids who have never seen the ocean before," Alpert said. Everyone's just trying to survive, and it doesn't occur to them to do something for recreation."

“These kids learn to love the teaching profession. So they come back to Aim High as mentors.” —Ed Poole '82

All ninth-graders come together for one week each summer to work out of the Tennessee Valley Nursery in the Marin Headlands, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. They learn what stewardship means by maintaining trails, weeding invasive plants and planting native species. That Thursday, the students camp out at the park. For many, for whom gang violence is a part of their daily lives, camping under the stars is the scariest thing they've ever done. When they return to school on Friday, they make a presentation to the younger students.

What students and teachers call the "Aim High magic" is the culture the program creates, the sense of community among a diverse group of students and teachers who come together from different schools, different lives, for this one brief period in the summer. The cardinal rule is, "No put-downs." Students and teachers are not allowed to even jokingly criticize themselves.

To sustain the magic and maintain those powerful relationships, Aim High sponsors enrichment programs, including free trips to museums, every month during the school year. There also are weekly trips to the Tennessee Valley for continued environmental projects throughout the winter.

"We help our kids not feel lost," Lee said. "We help our kids understand that they're safe."

Considering their circumstances, that's no small feat.

Last summer, a student walking to an Aim High program at Visitacion Valley Middle School found the body of a man who had been murdered just off the edge of the school property. Under normal circumstances, that kind of traumatic experience would have happened in a vacuum, but this student had the immediate support of the teachers, mentors and other student.

Adolescents walk a tightrope between being children and wanting to grow up. Under the pervasive influence of drugs and violence, their lives can easily go the wrong way. But given the right circumstances, they blossom.

Evernease McKnight
Evernease McKnight

"Kids in middle school are just figuring out who they are," Foulke said. "You can tap into the children in them and take advantage of their enthusiasm."

"Kids in middle school start to question themselves, as they are trying to separate from their parents," Alpert said. "Aim High steps in with great mentors. We ran a program in the Western Addition neighborhood, which is a really rough neighborhood, where kids were killed by stray bullets at night. I remember one sixth-grader who was tiny but was one of the toughest kids I ever met. Aim High broke down that bravado. We had high school, college and professional teachers from that neighborhood as mentors. That's powerful. At the very least, those mentors can say to him, 'I work. I can take care of myself. I can buy my own sneakers.'"

Alpert said Lee is responsible for saving hundreds of lives through Aim High.

"I'm not a deeply religious person, but if there's one person who will go to heaven, it's Alec," Alpert said. "Alec is the Common Good."

Evernease McKnight would attest to that. McKnight is the guardian of a teenager named Lisa Concepción, whom her niece had adopted as an infant. Concepción came to live with McKnight the summer she finished fifth grade, leaving McKnight scrambling for a middle school for her to attend that fall. Concepción was lost at the parochial school she had attended, because the classes were too large, McKnight said, so her one priority was to find a small school. She found one run by Aim High.

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Remembrance of Things to Come

Alec Lee and Haliday Douglas couldn't be less alike, yet their lives intersected at three different points along their remarkably different paths. Lee grew up in St. Louis and attended the John Burroughs School, one of the country's premier prep schools, and then went on to graduate from Bowdoin. So did Douglas. But Lee was born into a supportive, upper middle-class family, while Douglas was the middle of six children raised by a single mother in circumstances most of us cannot imagine: sharing three bedrooms of a two-family condemned flat where the family competed with mice and roaches for the little food his mother could afford. Heat and electricity were unpredictable. Read more...

At the time, Aim High was operating a year-round charter school called Aim High Academy, which Lee plans to reopen in the future. McKnight said that was the first school where Concepción was engaged by the teachers, and where the teachers took the time to reach her.

"The teachers at Aim High said to her, 'You are capable of learning, just like the other kids,'" McKnight said. "They gave her a lot of individual attention and kept trying different approaches. She was never an excellent student, but they made it so she always wanted to go to school, and that was never true before."

After three years at Aim High Academy and three years in the Aim High summer program, Concepción is excelling in high school. With the support of a special education program to address her learning disabilities, she is maintaining a 3.0 grade point average, and she works at the public defender's office after school.

Concepción could have taken the path so many disconnected teenagers choose. McKnight said Concepción sometimes talked about having a baby so she would have someone to love and someone who loved her. Now she is learning to love herself.

"I think Aim High really saved Lisa," said McKnight, who in January was elected to serve on the Aim High board of directors. "I know I couldn't have done it alone."

For all the kids that Aim High saves, it turns away 125-150 qualifying students each year because of a lack of funding.

"Sometimes we look at the applications and have to make the hard choice," Lee said. "We have to say, 'That kid doesn't need us that much.'"

The goal is to increase from nine sites serving 776 students a year, to 12 sites serving 1,200, and to increase the teaching staff from 200 to 300, by 2010.

With a per-student cost of $1,500, the current budget is $1.3 million; next year's will be $1.5 million. Expanding as much as they would like could push the annual budget as high as $2.1 million by 2010. The entire program is funded annually through donations and grants.

“I think Aim High really saved Lisa. I know I couldn't have done it alone.” —Evernease McNight

And as the program grows, so does the demand. The Oakland School District, outside of San Francisco approached Lee five years ago to open an Aim High site there, and a similar request came from East Palo Alto in 2005. Last year, the president of the board of trustees of the University of California system told Lee she'd like to see Aim High on every one of the system's 30 campuses.

With the success of the summer school program, Lee can't help believing that the model can be replicated in regular schools. He is committed to reopening Aim High Academy as a small, independent middle school that students can attend tuition-free.

"We want to become a model and put pressure on schools to be different and better," Lee said. "We have a moral imperative to at least try to expand this into a year-round school."

Laura Foulke '91
Laura Foulke '91

That's where Laura Foulke comes in. She joined Aim High in 2004 to help develop a strategic plan for the organization's future expansion, and is responsible for fundraising and external relations. She seems tailor-made for Aim High.

Foulke majored in English with a studio art minor. She took no education courses while she was at Bowdoin, but she did take a "fabulous Asian studies course" in her senior year, which inspired her to fly to Thailand after graduation to teach English.

"I loved teaching," she said. "I was hooked."

When she returned to the U.S., she got a job at the Council on Foundations, in Washington, D.C., where she learned about the world of philanthropy. That felt too removed from the work she loved, so Foulke enrolled in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Lee's other alma mater. While there, she helped start a program called "Gear Up," which gets local middle school kids interested in college. After graduation, she got a job as dean of student support services at a Boston charter school.

Foulke had spent a summer in San Francisco when she was at Bowdoin, and she never gave up the idea of moving back there. In the spring of 2004, she started looking for a job in the Bay Area and found Aim High.

“We want to become a model and put pressure on schools to be different and better” —Alec Lee Jr. '80

"I knew Suzanne (Alpert) because we had friends in common, and I had a lot of respect for her as a teacher," Foulke said. "And any teacher in San Francisco will know Aim High."

Foulke is impressed with the slow, steady, sustainable growth Lee has maintained at Aim High, and she's looking forward to helping build its future.

"This work brings people a lot of joy, though it can be exhausting and daunting," she said. "Everyone here feels that we can, and do, make difference."

Visit www.aimhigh.org