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A LEAD of Their Own

BU Academy runs summer program for middle schoolers


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In the slideshow above, see images from the Leadership Exploration and Academic Development Program. Photos by Chitose Suzuki

Offer middle school students the opportunity to spend their summer vacation in school and few will voluntarily raise their hands. Sweeten the offer with a weekly field trip and some rock climbing classes and you might find a few takers.

Those few eager students constitute the classes at the Boston University Academy summer program. For five weeks ending tomorrow, the elite high school has welcomed Boston middle-school students from low-income families to its Leadership Exploration and Academic Development Program (LEAD).

“If a student at any age sees themselves on a college campus because they’ve been there,” says Maureen Hurley, director of student life and summer programs at BU Academy, “they’re so much more likely to apply to colleges in the future and be able to visualize themselves attending college.”

LEAD emerged from the academy’s 2007 strategic planning commitment to foster diversity and be a “good neighbor,” says Jim Berkman, the academy’s headmaster. The Boston University provost’s office paid for start-up costs and shoulders the $2,400 cost per student.

The program accepts rising seventh and eighth graders who have applied or have been nominated by their schools as academically strong students and leaders among their classmates. Hurley says 45 percent of students are African American, 25 percent are Hispanic, and 25 percent are Asian.

Now in its second year, LEAD has attracted strong interest. The academy received 75 nominations for its 36 spots, 10 of which were filled by returning first-year students.

“We don’t want to be the kind of program that only accepts the top students in each school,” says Hurley. “We want to be open to different kinds of leadership. One girl nominated herself and I accepted her.”

The goal is not to serve as a grooming ground for BU Academy. That said, two first-year students have been accepted into elite high schools—one at Milton Academy and the other at BU Academy.

“If this helps position kids for more opportunities in high school, here or another place, we’re thrilled,” Berkman says.

Students attend four classes—English, math, science, and leadership development—and gym courses at FitRec. Fridays are field trip days, taking students anywhere from the Museum of Science and the State House to Wheelock College and Canobie Lake Park in Salem, N.H.

LEAD is unlike many schools the students attend. Class sizes are small, averaging 12 students. In each class, students have access to the teacher and at least three class counselors, who are college students or BU Academy high schoolers.

“I like it better when [teachers] are able to sit down with us and explain it to us,” says Ana Nejia, an eighth grader at Joseph A. Browne School in Chelsea, who wants to be a lawyer or chemist. “That way we’re all on the same level.”

On this typical weekday, students in science class huddle around lab tables where streams of bright light beam from wooden boxes. The students manipulate the rays with rectangular glass prisms to study light refraction.

Behind them on the windowsill, tiny potted plants drink up various odd concoctions—from Gatorade and Red Bull to orange juice and dyed water—as part of an experiment exploring how nutrition affects the plant’s growth.

Science teacher Rachel Riemer says students chose topics they wanted to explore. Their list is an indication of where the next generation of scientists may be headed: electricity, magnetism, solar energy, and wind turbines.

Down the hall, the English class is dissecting Lois Lowry’s The Giver. Teacher Alicia Henriquez calls on regular contributors and coaxes more reticent readers to share their opinions.

Nick Dent is wrapping up his lesson on measuring angles and distance next door. The math teacher flits from one table to the next answering questions and checking students have copied their homework correctly into dog-eared notebooks.

Students are not graded on their performance, and teachers are not limited to covering what may appear on a test—a refreshing change from the normal school year.

After a short trip to FitRec, students line up for their first hip-hop class with Henry Kasdon, whose hair is sectioned into ponytails that give him an urban porcupine effect. He teaches the at-times rowdy bunch how to skank, jerk, and do the running man en masse.

The day wraps up with a session on leadership. Younger students learn what Hurley calls the “nuts and bolts” of leadership skills, while return students hone their public speaking.

Daniel Castillo, an eighth grader at John W. McDevitt Middle School in Waltham, appreciates the change of pace at LEAD. The aspiring NASA scientist says students at his school often swear or don’t pay attention to teachers, unlike his fellow LEADers.

“Nobody’s afraid to say, ‘I like to study,’” Castillo says. “Nobody’s afraid that they’re going to get beat up or something like that.”

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

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