The middle-school years are tough, even under the best of circumstances. That's when kids are most susceptible to negative influences, with some easily falling prey to drugs, alcohol and gangs.
But it also is an ideal time to make a positive difference in a young person's life. According to a 10-year study by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, because harmful behavioral habits aren't yet firmly established, early intervention can still make a huge difference. That underscores the need for programs like Aim High.
A tuition-free academic enrichment program serving at-risk students in grades five through eight, Aim High was founded in 1991 by several John Burroughs School alumni who identified the need for such services in Saint Louis' low-income neighborhoods.
Aim High offers an intensive, five-week summer school that includes a rigorous academic schedule, physical fitness and cultural outings, utilizing state-of-the-art facilities provided by John Burroughs and St. Louis Priory schools, according to Natalie Ott, the organization's director of advancement.
One of the reasons Aim High is effective is that it's ongoing. During the school year, the program holds monthly Saturday morning sessions that encompass test preparation, field trips and other activities. And when students join the program in fifth grade, they are expected to remain with it for the next four years. That kind of continuity is important, especially during such a critical period.
Ott says Aim High faculty members are recruited from schools throughout the St. Louis region, and consist of professionals who understand the challenges faced by at-risk students and can serve as both great teachers and positive role models.
Students at participating schools are nominated by their teacher or principal for acceptance into Aim High. Those tapped need not be top academic performers, but they must show a desire to improve and succeed.
With a stable support system in place to guide their goals into realities, Aim High participants are twice as likely as other St. Louis Public School students to graduate from high school. And, embodying the program’s name, almost 90 percent continue on to higher education, Ott notes.
In addition to the City of St. Louis, students come from the Maplewood-Richmond Heights School District and the former Wellston School District. From its inaugural class of 50, Aim High provides support to more than 300 students each year.
The organization is supported by a wide variety of foundations and corporations, but also depends heavily on private donors. For more information about Aim High, call 432-9500 or visit aimhighstl.org.
Volunteer Spotlight: Tony Kimple Jr.
Aim High’s motto is, It all comes back to you, but Tony Kimple Jr. turned that on its head. As a shy adolescent in inner-city St. Louis, Kimple guarded himself closely. “I told people that I was gang-affiliated, that I ran the streets in my neighborhood,” he recalls. “I played the part so well that no one realized I was telling a lie.”
Perhaps not, but his fifth-grade teacher certainly realized Kimple’s potential and nominated him for Aim High. He and his mother, a single parent, were unfamiliar with the program and had to be persuaded to join.
Initially, the 12-year-old was reticent. But as that first summer progressed, he began to open himself up to teachers and fellow students, whom he now describes as his second family.
As a student at Soldan International Studies High School, Kimple became a master sergeant in the Air Force junior ROTC—and regularly made the honor roll. All the while, Aim High kept him on the right track. “What my mom couldn’t knock into my head, Aim High did.”
Approximately 40 percent of high schoolers in the St. Louis Public School District fail to graduate. But Kimple not only graduated, he also is the first member of his family to attend college. He is now completing his freshman year at University of Missouri St. Louis, where he studies theater and biology.
Now an extroverted young man, he promises that, “What I do on a daily basis will astonish everyone.”
There was never any doubt that after graduation Kimple would ‘pay it forward’ to Aim High. That is why he returned to the organization to volunteer as a teacher’s assistant. After all, what better role model could a young person have than someone who has overcome the same obstacles?