Harvard Graduate School of Education Logo

Give back to HGSE and support the next generation of passionate educators and innovative leaders.

Current Issue

Fall 2020

Alec Lee

Photo: Courtesy of Aim High

download a PDF of the article

Alec Lee, Ed.M.’85

Executive Director | Aim High | San Francisco

Aim High opened its doors in June 1986, one year after I graduated from the Ed School. Many of my memories of the early years of Aim High are hazy, but I vividly remember the first day. I stood on the sidewalk outside our inaugural school campus in San Francisco early in the morning. There was plenty of excitement and energy but also a high degree of nervousness and uncertainty. Would the kids show up? Would our teachers step up? Would the Morning Circle work? Would our curriculum and activities resonate for kids? The answers to all of those questions turned out, much to my delight, to be yes. Over the ensuing years, Aim High’s free summer academic and enrichment program has grown to serve more than 2,300 low-income, first-generation Bay Area middle school students annually across 18 campuses.

Thirty-four years later, on June 22, 2020, standing in my kitchen, I felt that familiar anticipation as our team launched our first-ever virtual learning program, Aim High at Home (AH@H). Just two months earlier, in April, we announced to our families that Aim High could not safely operate our traditional, in-person summer program as planned in 2020. In the absence of physical spaces for us to gather, we made our first pivot.

As I have said often during the past four months: Our mission, goals, and values remained exactly the same. Each summer, Aim High offers middle school students five weeks of rigorous academic classes, outdoor education, enrichment opportunities, social/emotional skill building, and college/career exploration to prepare them for the upcoming school year and the eventual transitions to high school and college. What changed this summer was our delivery.

There was never a question about staying the course and stepping up to meet the needs of students and families during this fragile moment. But, we knew that we could not simply take our traditional model and stuff it into a Zoom call. We had to reimagine.

Our first step was to conduct a needs assessment of our students and families. What we heard: community and engagement matters most. From there, we created a set of principles to guide our work. One example: See a bigger world, starting with our book club curriculum, which was designed to help students see beyond the walls of their homes by reading and analyzing excerpts from several works including Erika Sanchez’s I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter.

Our work this summer became more critical and urgent after the brutal murder of George Floyd.

“The recovery for students who are disproportionately impacted by both the virus and racial injustice will be long and arduous. We are not going anywhere.”

Our pre-program week of professional development with 125 educators focused on preparing our staff to respond to this moment. As a result, when AH@H began, all of our teachers were ready to offer students a safe space to process their pain, anger, grief, fear, and frustration. As a white man, my only job during these conversations was/is to listen and learn from our communities of color. We recommitted ourselves to hearing, seeing, and honoring our Black students, their history, and their lived experiences.

After months of sheltering in place amidst the heaviness of this extraordinary moment, middle school students missed their friends and teachers, and our families told us how important it was to reengage with Aim High. And so, the heart of our model was the imperative to build community and connection, even while physically apart. Students received opportunities to process their thoughts and feelings in our Issues & Choices social/emotional youth development course. They also participated in project-based learning — STEAM challenges and book club — to regain lost academic ground and thrive when school begins again.

In addition to academics, we created video-on-demand activities for easy viewing and access, like coding, snack-making, and outdoor adventures, and many live activities in the afternoons, thanks to some incredible partnerships with the American Conservatory Theater, Women’s Audio Mission, and Circus Center, among others. At the end of one of the live yoga classes, the teacher asked students to describe how they were feeling in the Zoom chat box. One student wrote, “I am grateful that I have people who love me.”

On July 24, our students celebrated the last day of AH@H and our 300 ninth-graders graduated from the program. The early returns are in: It worked! Every day, kids saw teachers they knew and loved. Every day, they were learning with trusted peers and friends. And every day, they had fun. That’s what matters most in 2020. There was another bonus, too. Our 125 summer faculty are returning to their schools across the Bay Area equipped with a toolbox to strengthen their virtual teaching skills.

We learned a ton this summer and we’ll take these learnings forward as we look to stretch and deepen our impact in 2021 and beyond. This fall, our top priority is to imagine and implement “Beyond Aim High” to support our students as they return to virtual school and learning. One of our longtime Aim High educators and alumna, Michelle, said: “I just want to embrace all of my students and let them know that there is Aim High love that’s going towards them, there is hope that’s going towards them. I want students and families and educators to dream big — dream vividly, dream in color, and be ready to take this world by storm.”

I am rock-solid certain that innovative, nurturing summer learning will matter more than ever in 2021. The recovery for students who are disproportionately impacted by both the virus and racial injustice will be long and arduous. We are not going anywhere.

Alec Lee was a high school history teacher before starting Aim High. His son, Kelly, a high school humanities teacher in California, enrolled as a master's student at the Ed School this fall.