MIDVALE — Chris Allen readily admits he was in it for the money.
But after completing Hillcrest High School's summer academy, he realized a much greater payoff: a confident start to high school.
Earlier this summer, the formerly "shy kid" who rarely raised his hand in his middle school classes, addressed incoming freshmen and their parents about the benefits of the school's summer bridge program, which offers intensive instruction and pays students who regularly attend and complete their work.
After completing the program during the summer of 2016, Chris entered high school as "a kid that’s willing to raise his hand and answer the questions because I actually know the answer."
He finished his freshman year with a high grade point average, even earning a 4.0 GPA the third quarter.
"I never got a 4.0 ever in my life until this year," he said.
The program, a partnership with United Way of Salt Lake, is receiving national attention. Recently, Canyons School District was named a 2017 District of Distinction by District Administration magazine.
The award recognizes school districts that lead out with educational innovations “that are yielding quantifiable benefits, and that could be replicated by other districts.”
For Hillcrest High School Principal Greg Leavitt, the overarching goal of the program is to set up ninth-graders for success as they start high school.
"If you can create a successful ninth-grader, that’s the biggest predictor whether someone is going to graduate and be successful. So we have to catch those kids in that eighth to ninth-grade transition," Leavitt said.
Chris, who attended the program with his twin brother Carson, said he particularly benefitted from the math instruction he received in the academy, which was formerly called a boot camp.
The math class was instructed by Hillcrest math teacher Brock Peery, who also taught Chris' ninth-grade math class.
"He’s like the best teacher, the best teacher I’ve had in a while. He makes learning fun, not just how other teachers do it. He actually puts activities in it to teach the stuff," he said.
Wendy Dau, who as the principal of Midvale Middle School teamed with Leavitt to identify students who would benefit from a bridge experience, said another benefit of the program is building relationships between students and trusted adults before the freshmen start high school.
"They know people care about them. They know who they can go to for help. That’s really a big deal because those ninth-graders coming in don’t know who they can talk to or who can help them out with anything so now they’re connected already with those individuals," she said.
Dau, who was recently appointed principal of Jordan High School, said the students invited to the Hillcrest Strong Academy and Jordan High's AVID Summer Bridge Program had to be regularly attending their middle schools.
"If attendance is already an issue in the regular school day, they’re going to have a difficult time coming to school in the summer," she explained.
Candidates for the programs were also students their middle school teachers identified "as kids they’re worried are going to have a difficult time transitioning," Dau said.
Of 85 students invited to Jordan High's summer bridge program, 60 enrolled. Among them, 45-48 consistently attended, Dau said.
Eighty students attended Hillcrest's inaugural academy last summer.
The summer experiences help familiarize the students with the layouts of their new schools and ease the anxiety of moving from a more structured middle school environment to high school setting where students need to be more independent.
Chris said he was anxious about losing his friends, not knowing his way around the school and getting to know new teachers and classmates.
"There were a lot of feelings for me, mostly anxiety because it’s a new school and it’s high school. This is where it starts going on your resume. This is where it actually counts. It’s not like middle school where you don’t actually care about it. It’s high school. You have to do it and get good grades so you can get into a good college," he said.
Students, parents and educators agree that financial incentives help ensure regular attendance and keep students engaged.
At Hillcrest High, students earn $5 a day for attendance and participation. Students who are on time and present each of the 26 days are also eligible for a $300 end-of-program cash award.
Students also earn elective credit that counts toward graduation.
"We decided to make this incentive based because it’s hard to get kids to summer school. If you’ve done any research on summer schools, they’ll do a little reading program and a little bit here but they kind of trickle off, you know over time and they won’t really come," Leavitt said.
Dau said the program has received no pushback on the notion of paying students to regularly attend and complete the program.
“People say, ‘Well, you’re paying kids to come to school.’ Well you’re not. This is a summer program. It’s an optional program and what you’re doing is, you’re negating the financial hardship that is sometimes created by a kid going to summer school because these kids are often the students who are taking care of younger siblings, or they could get a job or help in their parents’ business or whatever. If you’re helping to alleviate that, it’s a very good thing," she said.
Last summer, several incoming Hillcrest students used the money they earned to help their households.
"We probably had five or six kids last year take the money they received and buy groceries, buy football equipment so they could participate, school clothes or technology. All the cash incentives go to places of business that are school related so we don’t want them going out buying whatever they want to buy. They really use the money wisely, not all of them, but most of them," Leavitt said.
Chris put part of his earnings in savings and spent part for a gaming system. His brother bought a cellphone.
"It’s their money and they worked hard for it," said Stephen Allen, the boys' father.
Both of his sons "flourished" in the program, he said.
"The whole thing was, they weren’t going to be lost the first day of school. It was just so assuring," he said.
Allen said another aspect of the program he appreciated was that students also received breakfast and lunch each day.
"It gives children whose families are struggling a little something else there," he said.
Jake Chalmers, a Jordan High School teacher who is instructing the AVID Summer Bridge science class, said the smaller class size helps ensure students get the help they need.
"I’m used to working with 35 to 40 students. So it’s been nice having about 25. And these kids are chosing to be here and that’s been nice as well," Chalmers said.
The course uses an AVID curriculum, which is short for Advancement Via Individual Determination. The nationally developed curriculum is designed to be engaging, encourage students to collaborate over lessons that have relevance.
"That’s the key right there. That’s how they hook them in and then get them excited about science and excited about themselves," Dau said.
Chalmer's students, for example, have worked in teams attempting to determine the best place to locate a cellphone company with the least environmental impacts using data analysis, reading maps and other skills.
Morganna Montoya, 14, said the program has been "kind of cool with all the science experiments we've been doing."
She said she will ultimately use the money she's earned to buy art supplies. "I'm a bit of an aspiring artist, you could say."
Going to school four hours a day during the summer has been challenging for Morganna, who lives in Taylorsville and has had to get up at 5 a.m. to ride public transportation to arrive at Jordan High School by 8 a.m.
"It gets tiring," she said matter-of-factly. "But I put my education above all."