For Alec Lee, Ed.M.’85 (right), summer isn’t a time for students to escape school. Since 1986, Lee has championed the power of summer learning for students through his organization, Aim High, a free summer learning and enrichment program that brings high-quality classroom experiences to low-income middle school students in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Lee, who at the time was teaching high school history, focused on this population because, he says, “there was a lot of emerging research that middle school was really a critical juncture, especially for kids with limited experience. Also emerging was research that was saying summer learning loss was a key contributor to the achievement gap.”
The summer, Lee says, is a chance for a completely different style of learning. Aim High offers its students — primarily low-income, first-generation, immigrant youth — small classrooms and a range of curriculum, from STEM courses and environmental education to career exploration and conversations around social justice. But the program does more than just instruct — it is also meant to be a space for students to find joy in learning and feel comfortable taking risks.
“Aim High is an academic program, no question, we’re doing 25 days of math, and science, and literacy, and that’s hugely positive, but the other piece that really works is the school culture and the sense of belonging,” Lee says.
From an initial cohort of 50 students recruited from neighborhood schools by Lee going classroom to classroom and talking with students and teachers, Aim High has grown to more than 2,000 students at 17 campuses across Northern California. For the first 17 years, Lee continued to teach history during the school year while running the program, but switched to directing full time as Aim High continued to grow.
Now in the midst of a five-year plan to serve an additional 6,000 students and train hundreds of new teachers, Lee says if you had told him 30 years ago that the organization would grow to such an extent, “I would have fallen over.”
“I was not anticipating this kind of growth, but we discovered that we had something that was really impactful,” Lee says.
Like most education programs in the last decade, Aim High has focused on collecting and analyzing data as a tool for measuring success. Lee says Aim High became data driven in part to help show impact to be able to raise the millions of dollars it takes each year to provide free services for students, but perhaps even more importantly to help drive improvement. For instance, when data showed campuses that served predominantly Latino students were not performing as highly as students in other campuses, the organization directed more resources, including curriculum revisions and more bilingual teachers, to address the need.
According to a recent implementation study with the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford University, Aim High is helping students reach positive outcomes, and the teaching and instructional practices result in “increased self-efficacy, or the belief in one’s ability to succeed” for its students.
Last year, school leaders in California, including the president of the school board in San Francisco, nominated Lee as part of President Obama’s “Champions of Change” program, recognizing leaders offering high-quality summer learning experiences for students. Lee was one of nine leaders selected from 450 nominations.
Lee credits HGSE courses on nonprofit management with giving him the skills to build Aim High. “I had never dipped my toes in the waters of nonprofit building and accounting, and I was successful in those programs, so that was a confidence booster,” Lee says.
His time here also changed his life in other ways. “I met amazing, smart, diverse people, so that was part of the power of that year at HGSE. I also met my wife in the program,” Lee says, recently celebrating his 30th wedding anniversary with Susan Shankland Lee, Ed.M.’85, who is the director of college counseling at The Urban School in San Francisco.
Lee has much to be proud of when he looks back on the program he’s built. In addition to the thousands of students who have benefited from the summer program, former Aim High students now serve in a variety of roles within the organization, from interns to campus directors; and many more have been propelled into careers in education.
Despite entering his 31st year leading Aim High, Lee has no plans on leaving. He says the impact of the program and working alongside great colleagues keeps him motivated, but this year in particular has given him extra incentive.