SAMOHI — Well-dressed youth traveled in groups of three in a circular pattern around the Santa Monica High School Library Thursday, peering at pieces of poster board depicting school groups extolling everything from the virtues of candy to working groups on racism.

This was not a high-powered Club Day for the discerning high schooler, but rather the culminating event of a seven-week course meant to help eighth graders who had difficulty in middle school transition into a successful freshman year.

The program, entitled Connect 4 Success, focuses on the core curriculum, but in a unique way.

Instead of sitting students down in a stuffy classroom and drilling information, they get to integrate the lessons into other activities, like field trips to the Wednesday Farmers’ Market to learn about organic farming, nutrition and budgeting, or the Santa Monica Pier to explore the history of the iconic site and physics of its park-style rides.

What’s more, the history, science and math lessons dovetail each other, creating a cohesive concept that is greater than the sum of its parts.

“They see that it’s kind of fun,” said Dr. Sally Chou, the chief academic officer for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, and designer of the Connect for Success program. “They’re doing something, learning something and having fun, all at the same time.”

SMMUSD established Connect 4 Success three years ago as an alternative to summer school that administrators and teachers alike hoped would engage students more successfully than the traditional reading, writing and arithmetic.

“We wrote the bulk of the curriculum during our first year,” said Samohi physics teacher Marybeth Reardon. “We’ve been tweaking and editing since then.”

Those changes come out of yearly debriefings that identified where students were struggling, and how to bolster the program with fun activities that could improve their skills.

Over the course of the three years of operation, the number of students enrolled in the program has slowly grown, particularly as parents become aware of the benefits the kids get out of the 16 hours a week of disguised instruction, Chou said.

As they attack learning challenges that set their students up for failure, instructors also try to address a persistent, underlying problem — the fact that over 1 million high schoolers drop out of school every year.

Teachers include carefully-selected reading materials and writing assignments that extol on the virtues of finishing high school and going on to a four-year college or other form of higher education that appeal directly to the students’ sense of self-interest rather than high-minded ideals imposed by others.

According to information provided by the Alliance for Excellent Education, the average high school dropout earned only $17,299 a year in 2006, compared to a high school graduate that could earn an average $26,933 per year.

As the student’s level of education rose to an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree, the pay level increased as well.

Encouraging students to acknowledge the benefit of education is one thing; proving to them that they can achieve those standards is another.

That’s why teachers encourage their pupils to identify their individual strengths and talents that will help them through the next four years, Chou said.

“Sometimes, the biggest issue they have is with themselves,” Chou said. “These exercises show them how to build confidence and come to high school with a positive image of themselves.”

At the end of the program, students engage in a leadership component, where they are asked to identify a problem they see in the community and address it through a school-based club.

They create a presentation including practiced script, informational board and commercial or other promotional materials.

Nagel Martinez, Jessica Martinez and Joana Melendez formed one group that created a club to support students struggling with their sexual identities called the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Alliance, or LGBTA.

“We want to make sure that everyone feels safe on campus,” Nagel Martinez told fellow classmates, who came Thursday for the brightly colored poster and Martinez’ musical stylings and stayed for the bribes of rainbow M&Ms and Oreo cookies.

After the presentation, the girls reflected on their summers, which woefully end a week earlier than years previous to accommodate a change in the normal school year.

“I loved it,” Nagel Martinez said. “We took field trips, that’s a big part of why I liked it.”

Jessica Martinez, who’s looking forward to school starting up again so she can get involved with low-key sports and possibly starting up the LGBTA for real, said that she felt more comfortable on campus now that she and her fellow “Connectors” had spent several weeks exploring the high school on their own before the droves of other Samohi students descend.

Both felt confident that they would do well in the coming school year, which is exactly what administrators like Chou and teachers like Reardon want to hear.

At present, the Connect 4 Success program only holds approximately 180 kids, split into six or seven groups of about 20 students that rotate teachers every week. With that set up, the students get the attention they need, while also meeting a number of teachers from different disciplines that can help them as they move forward in their high school education.

The benefits shouldn’t be kept to just one group of students, Chou said.

“In the future, I’d like to see all freshmen participate in something like this,” she said.

ashley@www.smdp.com

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