Outside, the Texas summer hangs thick and hazy, inviting indolent afternoon naps and languid laps in backyard pools. But inside windowless college classrooms, some students are building up a sweat in a more cerebral fashion.
Instead of lazy days free from homework, they are hard at work in summer bridge programs, designed to help students make the academic and cultural shift to college.
At Texas Southern University, incoming freshmen are scribbling algebraic equations, composing essays and parsing parts of speech. At the University of Houston-Downtown, mathematically minded middle and high school students are assembling towers, constructing robots and drafting engineering designs. Later this summer, at the University of Houston Bauer College of Business, aspiring business majors will get a crash course in financial literacy, research skills and networking.
"This is going to help me learn more so I can go to college," said Elisandra Garcia, 13, an 8th-grader from Null Middle School in Sheldon ISD and one of the students in the UH-Downtown Houston PREP program. "I want to do something with my life. I don't want to just sit around."
Summer bridge programs range from academic enrichment for high-achieving students to developmental classes for at-risk students. Some include lessons in college culture and study skills; other focus on a single academic specialty, such as math or science. Some offer college credit; others give incentives such as textbook vouchers.
But they share the same goal: to increase the number of students attending and succeeding in college.
"So many students don't do well in the first semester because they are not prepared for the transition to college, not just the physical setting but also the expectations," said Branden Kuzmick, who oversees two summer bridge programs at UH-Downtown. "We try to acclimate them early to what college is about."
Some learning options
The UH-Downtown programs include the Freshman Summer Success Project, an extended orientation where new students can try out classes, meet instructors and learn to navigate the campus, and Project Grad, a program for high school students that includes financial literacy and academic enrichment.
UH-Downtown's Houston PREP is geared toward middle and high school students interested in careers in science, technology, engineering and math (also known as STEM).
All of the students in the program go on to college and about 80 percent graduate from a four-year institution. Among the college graduates, about 47 percent major in STEM subjects, about three times the national average, according to Sangeeta Gad, the program coordinator.
The Houston PREP success rate mirrors gains seen in summer bridge programs in general.
A recent report from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which administers funding for a number of bridge programs around the state, concluded that participants enroll and achieve early success in college sooner than others.
Transition is smoother
Some of the most effective bridge programs target recent high school graduates needing remedial English or math classes. Students who participated in those programs are more likely to enroll in college and move on to college-level classes more quickly than those who have not.
That's the objective of the Summer Academic Enhancement Institute at Texas Southern University.
"If we can get students through developmental courses, they can go into college-level work with a head-start," said TSU associate provost Betty Cox, who oversees the program. "That's the only way we're going to change things."
On a recent morning, students in Brian Mack's English class were reviewing parts of speech, types of sentences, independent and dependent clauses.
"You can be the most brilliant person in the world, but if you can't communicate effectively, it doesn't matter," Mack told his class.
Claudia Salazar, 24, a student sitting at a front row desk, nodded in agreement. A single mother of two about to enter TSU after a long break from school, Salazar said the TSU program was helping her recall long-forgotten material and preparing for the college work still ahead.
"This is just what I needed," said Salazar.