Program’s students aim for college

Academy targets fifth-graders

Abubakar Aden, 10, of Roxbury is a member of the inaugural class of the College Success Academy. Abubakar Aden, 10, of Roxbury is a member of the inaugural class of the College Success Academy. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / July 7, 2011

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Instead of enjoying the summer sun yesterday, a group of soon-to-be fifth-graders crowded into Suffolk University lecture halls and built houses out of straws.

After lunch, they tested the structural integrity of their designs with marshmallows and hoped the weight would not make their houses collapse. But these kids do not mind spending the time practicing their geometry skills.

“I want to prove that I can do much more than I can already,’’ said 10-year-old Kasey Castillo, a student at Edison K-8 School in Brighton and a member of the inaugural class of the College Success Academy.

The academy is an offshoot of Steppingstone Academy, a 14-month program that prepares students to pass private school entrance tests as well as exams for certain Boston public schools. But the goal of the new initiative is to help students in the district earn college degrees by working with them from fifth grade until they graduate.

Kasey said he gets good grades when he is in class but admits to missing a lot of school last year, which hurt him academically.

“I hope this will help,’’ he said. “I want to go to college and get a scholarship to like Harvard because I know it’s the best college in the world.’’

The initiative kicked off this week with 50 students from Edison and the Jackson-Mann K-8, also in Brighton, that are part of the pilot program.

“I am so unbelievably proud of you,’’ Steppingstone founder Michael Danziger said as he beamed at the students. “Here it is an unbelievably sunny day, and you guys are here going to school so you can what?’’

“Go to college!’’ the students yelled in response.

The free, college-prep program starts in the summer with six weeks of intense learning at Suffolk and continues during the school year on the respective K-8 campuses with after-school and Saturday courses. Students are selected based on need and interest, not necessarily academic performance.

“You’ll see students across the whole gamut,’’ said Yully Cha, Steppingstone’s executive vice president of programs. “We wanted to look at such things as: How are they doing in school, test scores so far, what do their teachers have to say? We’re looking for families that might not have access to a program like this because of finances.’’

Brighton was chosen as the site for the pilot program because organization leaders said they wanted a geographic location where students were likely to attend elementary, middle, and high school in the same area.

At Suffolk, four lecture halls are transformed into elementary school classrooms each day from about 8 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. On the walls are brightly colored “Welcome’’ posters representing the more than 10 languages spoken by the diverse group of students, including Khmer, Bengali, and Portuguese.

Most of the students are boys, nearly all come from low-income families, and about half are still learning English. Each day, they get a double-dose of math and reading, where they study core math skills, fiction and nonfiction writing, and reading comprehension. They also learn science and have a study skills course where they learn about timemanagement and setting goals.

Fridays are hands-on learning days, better known as field trips. Tomorrow, they are headed to the Institute of Contemporary Art, a place few of the students have visited.

But exposure is part of the academy experience and a reason why the summer sessions are housed at a university. Academy organizers say it is important for students to know what it feels like to be on a real college campus.

“They need to understand that college is completely within their reach,’’ said Barry Brown, acting president and provost at Suffolk, which is allowing the academy to use the space at no cost.

While only about 35.5 percent of overall Boston public school graduates earn four-year college degrees, about 80 percent of the Steppingstone scholars do, said the Steppingstone Foundation, which is overseeing the academy.

When asked what university she wants to attend, 11-year-old Ty-Kierah Gaines shrugged and admitted that she does not know much about college other than that she wants to go somewhere out of state.

But first, she will focus on improving her grades, starting with the yesterday lesson and marshmallow test. As for her friends who spent the day out in the sun: “They’re going to lose their education because I heard that many people if they don’t go to school in the summer, lose their education.’’

Ty-Kierah said she is thankful that will not be her.

Akilah Johnson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson2.