Enriching Education: Creating a Balance of Academic and Community-designed Electives 

On a sunny Wednesday in early July, Rainier Scholars – Tacoma welcomed its second cohort of students to Summer Stretch at First Creek Middle School with excitement and high-fives! Tacoma’s Summer Stretch Academy, much like Seattle’s Academic Enrichment Phase (AEP), is some of the most academically intensive parts of our college prep programming. Summer Stretch runs for six weeks and consists of morning assembly, literature/writing, math, history and science classes and, unique to Tacoma, community-run elective classes. By the time students complete the three summers and two years of Summer Stretch Academy, they will have received around 1,000 hours of additional learning and instruction which is equivalent to about one additional year of school. 

“The electives really round out the academic programming and allow students to explore different areas that could be a passion for them or deepen their knowledge in something they already know about. It complements the hard-core academic experience that we know we want to provide to scholars,” said Jennifer Ward, Chief Operating Officer, Rainier Scholars – Tacoma. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, electives serve as a motivating incentive for students between core classes. “They love them, they love them. If you ask some students, what is your favorite thing about Summer Stretch, many of them would say the electives,” said Ward. This year, they have doubled the number of elective offerings that consist of rap, painting, drumming class, martial arts, sewing, sports, choir and yoga/meditation.

When planning electives for the year, the team put out a request for proposals to the community and allowed them to dictate what the offerings would be. “Community members can really propose any subject, as long as it’s something that doesn’t feel like regular school and is interactive and keeps the students highly engaged,” said Ward. Many if not all of the elective instructors have experience or currently work with youth, which helps when lesson planning for the 10 sessions they lead throughout the summer. 

Students get to choose their top electives with a guarantee to get placed in at least one of their top two choices. “A couple of the students who I assumed would pick martial arts, didn’t, and they were so mad that they got put into that class. And then after the first class, they said ‘we were wrong, we really love it!’ I think it’s pushing some kids out of their comfort zone, and that’s what we want for them,” said Ward. The hope is that having the opportunity to try new things will translate into extracurricular involvement later in their academic journey and become less of an expectation and more the natural culture of the cohort. 

“The payoff of adding non-academic focused electives into Summer Stretch is well worth it! It has kept students excited; gives them something to look forward to and keeps them motivated to come here during the summer,” said Ward. Find out more about the Rainier Scholars – Tacoma academic program by going on a fall program tour.