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|An Interview With Ed Liu
How do you think that the multicultural commitment of SB shaped the program and
The social justice aspects of the program influenced me greatly. Empowering young people and
working with kids with limited educational opportunities definitely shaped my interest in education
and teaching as a way to do meaningful work and have an impact. I think the issue of social justice
is the main reason that people are attracted to Summerbridge in general. The issue cuts two ways
from a director’s standpoint. When I was determining which faculty to hire, there were definitely
people who were interested in social justice but who didn’t particularly like kids—I looked for people
who had both interests because I felt that they would adapt to better meet the needs of the kids.
There is a fine line where you can miss the kid’s needs if you are aiming for some political ideal or
What aspects of Summerbridge do you think were the most potent?
I think it is a combination of several things. What Summerbridge does well is that it holds in tension
competing values, for example, rigor and fun. It can be rigorous in terms of academics and how
students treat each other and at the same time you can be crazy and silly--having fun and just being
kids. Finding a balance between seeking rigor and excellence in everything you do and also have a
commitment to fun and humor and creativity is a leadership challenge that Summerbridge does very
For the faculty there is a focus and commitment to being kid centered; to adapting what you are
doing to the needs of the students you have. For everyone involved there is encouragement for taking
responsibility and handing over a lot of responsibility to young people and trusting that they can rise
to those challenges. Expecting a lot from people and believing that they are capable of challenging
work are some of the greatest strengths of Summerbridge.
How would you characterize the learning that takes place at Summerbridge?
It is fairly varied. For the faculty, a lot of the learning is experiential. They have a little bit of training
at the beginning and basically they learn as they do, with oversight from master teachers. A lot of the
learning is immersion. For the students I think it is the total experience and all the parts that are
linked together. With regards to academics, the student-teacher ratio allows more hands on,
interactive, or discussion based learning than most of the students are used to. Different elements of
the Summerbridge program develop academic skills and others go beyond academics and focus on
issues of affect and interpersonal skills--soft skills--communication skills, confidence, presentation skills.
This type of learning is emphasized repeatedly in different ways in different elements of the program.
They are touched upon in All School Meeting, which brings in academics but also brings in public
speaking, risk-taking, and communication. The field trips where students are going out into the
community and introducing themselves to adults, the co curricular activities or mini-courses all worked
towards developing important skills. What is unique about Summerbridge is that it really does see
every component of the program as educational. The mini-courses aren’t just fun times for the kids
there is a curriculum and agenda for each of the components. Summerbridge is total emersion into a
culture of high expectations, a culture where learning is fun, where it is cool to be smart and be
curious, but also where the learning takes part both in and outside of the classroom.
Are there aspects of learning theory and educational pedagogy that that you associate
more closely with the Summerbridge model?
There are elements of Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences; the interpersonal the intrapersonal as
well as the more traditional types of intelligences are valued and cultivated. Summerbridge tries to be
fairly constructivist. Though the student teachers are heavily influenced by teachers they have had,
the program as a whole aims to be constructivist in the sense that less is more and emphasizes the
importance of developing a few key concepts and building from there. Summerbridge also develops
leadership and a critical stance towards society and the world; in that regard there is a kind of
Friereian empowerment aspect to it.
How do you think that the age-approximate student teacher model, as opposed to
professional teachers, effects the learning outcomes of the students?
Strong professional teachers would probably make the classroom impact of subject matter instruction
more effective but I think you would sacrifice the very significant influence of role modeling on the
part of the young teachers. The students teaching students aspect of Summerbridge is what makes it
so effective. Having these very powerful role models, the opportunity for the kids to see what is literally
possible for them is so important. Academic skills are important but so much of the college equation
is aiming high and knowing how to navigate the very complicated system of college admissions. There
is so much informal knowledge that is never taught and is disseminated through social networks or
family background. College counseling services are unable to provide this kind of support and
information to students and families in low income schools. Students and families can be told that
there is financial aide but they just don’t believe it until you actually tell them that this is what
happened to you and help them navigate the college application process. A big part of the power of
Summerbridge is the role that the student teachers play is expanding the horizons of the students.
Resiliency literature emphasizes the significance of family in a child’s ability to excel.
How significant was parental support and encouragement for the success of the
We had parents who encouraged and supported the kids and we had many kids who did it on their
own. Our students were not the most at-risk kids in terms of really high needs for skill remediation but
some of them struggled considerably in middle school because they were bored. They were smart kids
who were getting into trouble because the curriculum did not hold their attention. We had a
conscious recruiting strategy to bring together students with a range of skills. These were definitely
kids with above average motivation—they would have to be to complete the Summerbridge
You teach organization theory at the college level, how does Summerbridge cultivate
A lot of what I learned about leadership was formed at Summerbridge and I think it is a great
leadership training program. When I read Jim Collin’s book Built to Last when I was in business
school, I found myself writing throughout the margins, Summerbridge, Summerbridge, Summerbridge.
It is about the power of a clear vision; having a huge goal that you stretch for and then also a very
strong culture that aligns and reinforces that goal. What is very powerful about Summerbridge is that
it has such a strong culture and that culture is reflected in the structure and the program design. It is
all internally consistent.
The message of Summerbridge is internally consistent. At every single level the participants see that
you can be young and you can do a lot. You have young directors, young faculty, and young students
with high expectation and the consistent message that you can do more than you think you can do.
The faculty sees the young director doing a lot, the students see the student teachers doing a lot; high
expectations are mirrored at each level and you think, ‘this is the most impressive group of people I
have ever seen at this age’. The role of the leader is to establish the culture up front and everyone is
invited to share the responsibility for sustaining and contributing to that culture. Summerbridge has a
whole set of trainings rituals and indoctrinations at the beginning of the summer to let faculty know,
this is the Summerbridge way-- this is how we do things. As a result of this training, the students
gained confidence and skills and many became leaders in their high schools.
Summerbridge does a great job of holding in tension competing desired outcomes. There is a huge
juggling act involved in balancing order with the open and creative space to both allow and cultivate
big changes in perception and attitude. Over the years there are structures that have been built into
the program which act as solutions for managing some of these tensions. The mini-courses, the
classic field trips, and All School Meeting are example structures that encapsulate ways of managing
tension between academic excellence and creativity.
The director’s leadership role is to keep things in balance. Summerbridge is a classic case example of
the benefits of a strong culture and how that culture enables you to be less directive toward faculty
and students, allowing them to exercise their initiative within the bounds of the culture. In a sense the
culture becomes the control mechanism rather than a more formal structure of rules and
regulations. You rely on informal, tacit understandings of how things should work and trust the
faculty to operate within the bounds of that culture, providing them correction and support when they
need it. Summerbridge has both a strong culture and a design structure that keeps potentially
competing goals in balance.