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|History of Summerbridge/Breakthrough:
Adapted from “The Early Years” written by Lois Loofbourrow
Mal Singer and Lois Loofbourrow were asked to start Summerbridge in the spring of 1977 by Dennis
A. Collins, Head of San Francisco University High School. The impetus originated not only from Dennis’s
vision but also from a mandate from the Founding Board of Directors of University High School -- to
create programs that would touch the lives of students not normally associated with an independent
school. Dennis convened an ad hoc committee consisting of a number of faculty and staff members of
the high school. The committee met a number of times to consider this “outreach” policy and
eventually recommended that the program start a program for middle school students. Many of the
activities started in the first summer remain in programs to this day – City Day, Occupational Field Trip
Day, Olympics to name a few. The program evolved into an inspiring students teaching students
program over the course of the next few years. Eventually, they came to the conclusion that
Summerbridge was an evolving workshop in education – student-driven and student-centered. The
mission, however, remained the same – to prepare middle-school students to enter and to thrive in
rigorously academic high school programs.
Philosophically, the program was intriguing; we saw it as a way to build many bridges – Between
public and private; privilege and poverty
Between neighborhoods with wonderful sites and those with few
Between students with both strong preparation and those with weak
Between middle school exploration and high school pathways
Between segregation and integration
Between classism/racism and equality/opportunity
Between those in power and those who aren’t
Between the prejudices of the rich and the prejudices of the poor
Ideally, the program would help University High School to be a school of the city not one merely in the
city. The seeds for a relevant outreach program began with the School’s Board of Trustees, supported
by the Head of School, developed by a faculty committee, and started by co-directors.
We knew middle school, developmentally, is a wonderful time for closing academic gaps as well as a
time when students make life decisions that will affect their academic futures. Using the independent
University High School, the public Lowell High School, and the Catholic St. Ignatius schools as excellent
standards, we developed an enrichment program filled with a theme based curriculum. We knew
these schools had high expectation for their students and over 95% of their graduates went on to
The program was designed as a year-round, two-year program and Summerbridge was its summer
component; School-After-School was its school year component. The program was tuition-free with its
students coming from diverse economic and ethnic backgrounds. The cost of the program would be
the student’s commitment to participating fully in the program.
Because the program was small – 36 students, four teachers and 10 high school aged volunteers, the
curriculum was planned collaboratively by the senior staff. Weekly field trips enhanced classroom
exploration and a five-day camping trip to the mountains was just one of the highlights. The students’
skills were so diverse; the focus of the programming was still evolving. However, the Headmaster of the
school was as intrigued as the staff in crafting a program that could make a difference, not only in
the lives of the students coming to the program, but in the culture of the school to which the program
Because we embraced criticism right from the beginning, they tried to avoid complacency and
smugness. This was not hard because they were constantly questioning what they were doing. In the
late 70’s, many programs across the United States would start and almost immediately have lots of
answers to serious problems. While what worked and what didn’t work always intrigued them, they
decided that they would not become experts on anything until the program had time to grow and
mature. They thought this would take a few years and they were right.
What surprised me the most about the program was how much planning had to go into each event.
Occupational Field Trip Day took hours to set up. City Day, City Hall Day, Scavenger Hunts and
Overnight Adventures just “didn’t happen.” Details, details, details – without paying attention to
careful planning, things could go awry quite quickly.
The students and their families took the commitment to the program very seriously. Parents came to
everything and soon became a mainstay of the program. Parent volunteers fueled the program,
especially in School-After-School. Some parents even taught mini-courses in the afternoons during the
summer sessions. Parent conferences were held in the evening so working parents could be sure to
attend. This commitment is what brought students to our office right from the start – and one of the
greatest volunteer corps was born!
We learned so much!! The children were teachers; their teachers were teachers; their families were
teachers. We learned how uneven the playing field is for many students; we started understanding
how silent and deadly classism and racism can be; we started realizing our own misconceptions. We
started to realize that the program had true merit.
Thus, by 1983, we were grounded in the seriousness of our work. We knew some of the students
needed our help and advocacy throughout their high school years. We started tracking the student’s
progress and following them into college. We further understood that we had to be there for the
families of these students. We began to understand the stress of filling out financial aid forms in a
family where English is neither spoken or written. Obviously not all the students in the program need
to remain closely affiliated with the program from middle school to graduate school. Yet, for those
that do, we are their academic lifeline, their family. Helping them over the long term, helps us better
understand the need for programs such as Summerbridge.
Our students taught us that changing academic expectations is complicated. Crossing neighborhoods
and changing friends is not done without a price. Financial stress went way beyond a financial aid
grant. Each student had a story to tell and this story was highly personal. By high school, the
students needing assistance relied heavily on the Summerbridge Office for guidance and support. I
can’t imagine how a Summerbridge Program would become viable without dedication to their students
and strong continuity of program. By 1983, Summerbridge saw itself as an inherent part of University
High School; the program worked closely with the Admissions Office, Academic Affairs Office, and
Community Service Office.
The program settled in during these years – concentrating on how to better help young people teach,
weaning adults out of the classroom, and developing ways to incorporate student skills, critical
thinking skills, and expository writing skills into all classes. And, of course, we added a third summer of
the program for students needing extra skill enhancement.
By 1983, the classes were designed with the students’ needs in mind. We did not fit students into set
classes; we designed individual programs to assist the students. We tried to build research and
inquiry skills into each of these classes and celebrated reading and library usage in general. In fact,
on the very first field trip the students took in the program, one of their tasks was to get a library card
if they didn’t have one. We soon were to learn that for many students, the local libraries became their
homework sanctuaries. Some of our students came from homes that were simply too chaotic for quiet
study. Healthy alternatives exist for some, but not for all.
By 1983, we knew that excellence in all the co-curricular events helped our students build self-esteem
and leadership skills; excellence in the co-curricular arena also helped our students feel safe and
secure and happy within the program. The club program helped the students belong; Spirit Day
(borrowed from Lowell high school) helped the students work together and to see the power of
laughter and good planning. All-School Meetings became a class for many of Summerbridge’s key
values: curiosity, participation, inquiry, community, awareness, empathy, humor, warmth, appreciation,
recognition, safety, excellence. Contests celebrated Shakespeare. I vividly remember a major summer
contest for NewBridgers on the Role of the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. Words of the Day skits are still
memories as words like ubiquitous, gregarious, indigenous became “commonplace”. Staff training on
group presentations, appropriateness, public speaking was extended to also include the subtleties of
unconscious racism, gender bias. Training and resources regarding drug and alcohol abuse was also
given as well as clarity on the program’s zero tolerance of drugs and alcohol for the staff and
students while engaged in Summerbridge. Afternoon enrichment classes offered students to practice
skills they loved or to experiment with new skills. The importance of choice was essential – we wanted
to offer classes that appealed to the introvert, the extrovert, the quiet, the loud, the artist, the athlete,
the chess fiend, the musician, the dancer.
By 1983, 10% of the freshman class of University High School were Summerbridge Alumni. By 1986,
four Summerbridge students had been University High School’s student body presidents.