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STEM in Action: Washington MESA

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Bridging the Gap to Ninth Grade Math

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The transition to high school can be a make-or-break time for students. This summer program is turning things around and creating passion for STEM.

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Nick Jackson, a University of Washington freshman working toward his aerospace engineering degree, is beaming. “I just got a 92 percent on my pre-calculus midterm,” he says, “so I’m feeling pretty good.”

Five years ago, Jackson wasn’t quite as confident in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). After struggling through middle school math, his mother signed him up for Ninth Grade Bridge, an innovative program from Washington MESA that supports students in the critical transition from middle to high school.

With more rigorous academic expectations, increased competition, and shifting social dynamics, the importance of a smooth transition between eighth and ninth grade can’t be overemphasized. The more successful students are in ninth grade, the higher likelihood they will enjoy and graduate from high school. Conversely, there’s a strong correlation between ninth grade course failure and failure to graduate high school. Unfortunately, more students fail ninth grade than any other grade.

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Targeting student success in STEM gateway courses like ninth grade Algebra 1—a predictor of long-term student success—is a potential power lever in keeping students engaged and prepared to thrive along a STEM education-to-career pathway.

It worked for Jackson. He credits the Bridge program with inspiring his interest in STEM. “They got me on the right track,” says Jackson, noting the early win of an A+ in Algebra I his freshman year.

For nearly 30 years, Washington MESA has provided enriching learning opportunities to engage and inspire traditionally underserved students in STEM. Its Seattle Ninth Grade Bridge program provides a combination of summer tutoring (Summer Math Scholars), year-round mentoring, and Saturday field trips to see STEM in action. High school STEM teachers oversee the program while peer tutors, many of whom are MESA Summer Math Scholars alum, work with the students. The focus is on remediating core learning gaps, building students’ confidence, and expanding awareness of STEM careers.

Ninth Grade Bridge boasts an impressive track record. Since its inception almost ten years ago, nearly 70% of participating students finished their freshman year with a 3.0 GPA or higher, compared with only 20% of their peers. “It’s powerful,” says Jarman Hauser, assistant director of programs with Seattle MESA. “We’re connecting kids to what’s possible and broadening their view of the world and what they can do.”

Thanks to a $590,000 three-year Portfolio Award investment from Washington STEM, more students will get the support Jackson received. The Summer Math Scholars program is now used in MESA Centers across the state including Vancouver, First Nations, Yakima Valley/Tri-Cities, and two sites in Tacoma. Just one year in, the program broadened its reach to almost 200 students statewide and plans to scale up to 500 students in coming years.

Initial results show promise. Students from four of the five MESA locations piloting Summer Math Scholars improved their TOMA 2 scores, a common diagnostic mathematics assessment. Parents from the Tacoma MESA Center reported that kids who previously had a strong aversion to math, often accompanied by behavioral issues, actively participated in MESA’s Summer Math Scholars.

“I feel more comfortable with math,” said Mario Rodrigues, a student at the Yakima Valley/Tri-Cities MESA Center. “I find it less of a struggle to learn, and I can work at a faster pace.”

For the first time, Washington MESA was able to replicate and spread its successful program statewide. “With Washington STEM, we get a lot more than money,” said Hauser. “They advise us, work collaboratively on the program, help us find resources, and connect us to community partners who are doing similar work…. By taking Ninth Grade Bridge—a program we know works really well—and scaling it, we’re creating uniformity throughout the state. We haven’t been able to do that before.”

The impact doesn’t stop there. With Washington STEM support, Washington MESA is codifying promising practices from Summer Math Scholars and Ninth Grade Bridge so other educators can learn from and replicate their success, boosting student confidence and competence in STEM.

“When you think about the state of Washington and the achievement gap, if we could serve two to three thousand students a year, we’d be making a huge impact.” Thanks to Washington STEM, Hauser thinks they will reach those students sooner than later.

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