By Elizabeth Schneider
The word of the day was “sportsmanship.”
Whenever the word was spoken — and throughout the day’s variety of academic, social and athletic activities, it was spoken often — all of the Summerbridge students within earshot cheered with unrestrained enthusiasm.
For Gordon “Zeke” Knight, the founder of the San Diego chapter of the summer academic program for underprivileged students, this emphasis on character development is just as important as the classroom learning.
“We’re trying to make sure that these students develop emotionally and socially and develop self-esteem,” he said. “The academics are important, but it’s about the whole package.”
Knight, who for years served as development director at The Bishop’s School, says the goal of Summerbridge is twofold: to educate underprivileged students, many of whom are several grade levels behind in school, and to inspire them to strive for higher education and strong character.
After being introduced to the program by a friend in San Francisco, Knight brought the program to Bishop’s in 1993. It is funded entirely through corporate and individual donations and has a board that reads like the who’s who of San Diego.
The program has since moved to the La Jolla High School campus — a result of extensive summer construction at Bishop’s — but Knight has stayed heavily involved, as have several of his ex-students.
Katie Martin, a Bishop’s alumnus who currently attends Vanderbilt University, took a summer job teaching for Summerbridge several years ago. She never expected that it would change the course of her life.
“I came in (to teaching Summerbridge) as a nursing student and came out as an education major,” she said with a laugh. “You really feel like you’re making a difference, and it’s so much fun.”
The program is entirely taught by high-achieving college students like Martin, most of whom have no classroom experience. A week of intensive instruction at the beginning of the summer teaches them the basics of education, from creating lesson plans to managing classrooms.
Knight says the youth and relative inexperience of the teachers is actually a good thing, bringing creativity and innovative ideas to the program each year.
“You can really feel all the energy between the teachers — we all love each other as much as our students and we all work really hard every day,” Martin said.
And if the teachers leave with a desire to go into education (as many of them do), all the better.
“That’s exactly what we want to do,” he said. “We want to get good people into education instead of just going off to Wall Street or something like that.”
The teachers, who come from a variety of college backgrounds, teach classes in either language arts, math, science or leadership. The students take each class for 40 minutes a day, as well as visits to colleges or educational locations like the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center.
And although participation in Summerbridge can inspire many changes in students, from increased academic skills to increased self-esteem, some things will never change.
“Everything we do is super fun,” says Ryan Alvarez, a fourth-year Summerbridge student with a near-constant grin. “But my favorite part of the day is definitely recess.”