As the nights cool down and our clocks fall back, we want to send your minds off to warmer months––to this past summer’s Heads Up program. In June 2021, Heads Up offered its first in-person program in two years. For many of these students, June was also their first time at a physical school since the pandemic began. The warm, sunny month was full of new friendships and skills, from coding and debate to tennis and roller skating.
For our new community members, Heads Up is the School’s cornerstone community engagement program, founded in 1987. Each summer, a cohort of first-generation, college-bound students from Oakland public middle schools join together at Head-Royce for academic and enrichment classes. Students enter Heads Up in 6th and graduate at the end of 9th grade, as socially responsible leaders, ready to tackle high school, college, and beyond.
The Heads Up academic courses help prevent the dreaded “summer slide,” a phrase education experts use for the annual learning loss that occurs over break. The summer slide, which statistically affects BIPOC and low-income families hardest, was especially potent this year, with the disparities between access to technology and in-person school hours, as well as all of the COVID-related fear, anxiety, and loss. During the pandemic, Heads Up had to freeze its admissions, and in 2021, welcomed their biggest incoming class ever: 60 new students.
“The stakes definitely felt high, but for the first week, I began morning meeting by modeling that we had every reason to feel equal parts nervous and excited,” said Heads Up Director Mikki Frazier. “We committed to ‘naming our nerves’ and working together to support each other.”
Mikki is also careful to balance fun, social activities alongside academics. It’s vacation, after all! “Leveraging fun is an important part of creating a successful learning environment,” she says. “Having a buddy, a beloved teacher, or a free-time favorite is a big reason students look forward to coming to campus. We wanted to ensure that these anchors were firmly in place after missing out on the in-person experience the year prior.”
Heads Up builds a sense of togetherness between peers and between the student and their teachers, mentors, Head-Royce Upper School student-volunteers. The first days on campus were a mixture of social anxiety and high energy, as the students, ranging in age from 11 to 14, readjusted to learning in-person.
The Heads Up roller skating class provides a perfect metaphor for this summer’s trajectory: it was exciting but a little uncomfortable, and with encouragement and continued practice, students were sailing across the gym on one foot. (Check out this video of the roller skaters to see what we mean!)
The skating metaphor extends into the classroom as well. Vikram Ramaswamy ’21, along with fellow recent grads Jasper Reid, Taylor Wong, Lisa Kopelnik created an online debate program for Heads Up in 2020, teaching students who’d never before studied the art of argument.
Vikram, who also interned for the program, worked with Mikki Frazier to plan the in-person debate curriculum for this year and the five young alumni took turns teaching the class. “It was all entirely volunteer,” Mikki said, with deep appreciation, “and the students-teaching-students approach is extraordinarily powerful for all involved.”
“A few students immediately loved Debate,” said Vikram, “but many found it difficult to find their voice––after all, it’s difficult to speak in front of an audience.” Vikram, who is now a first-year student at the University of Chicago, fostered a “forum where ideas and opinions were prioritized over pure debate strategy.”
“Some searched for solutions to gentrification and mass incarceration. Others lit up when arguing about anime or Minecraft,” he said. “I learned it’s possible to approach debate through a lens of community-building rather than adversarial competition, which I intend to incorporate into my own college debate experience.”
Throughout the school year, Heads Up students will continue learning, connecting, and growing in four Saturday Leadership Academies. The first of the day-long seminars was on October 16. Students learned to set S.M.A.R.T. goals (see the graphic below), crafted wire jewelry, swam in the pool, and all the while, deepened their connections with their friends and mentors.
Learn more about the Heads Up program this Wednesday, November 10, 7 p.m. via Zoom. We hope to see you there!