Midvale • Ben Fuentes starts high school later this month — and he’s actually feeling confident.

For the past six weeks, Fuentes and fellow soon-to-be freshmen at Hillcrest High School have spent their summer break completing preparatory courses in English, math, science and social studies — all while earning a little cash.

 ”I don’t want to feel too cocky or anything,” Fuentes says, ”but I feel like I’ll be able to pass. I’ll be able to maintain at least a C-average.”

Beyond the academic mastery, Fuentes’ mood is helped by a $5 bill in his pocket, and the promise of another $300 headed his way.

“The money? That‘s just, like, a bonus,” he says.

Fuentes was among the roughly 80 students who participated in the Husky Strong Summer Academy, a unique summer-school program that just wrapped its second year at Hillcrest High School.

Rather than focus on makeup work and/or catching up on credits like most traditional summer schools, the Hillcrest program preemptively invites struggling eighth-graders to get a jump on their first semester of high school by spending four hours a day on core academic subjects. And for choosing classwork over the summer sun, participating students receive $5 each day they attend and another $300 if they complete the program with perfect attendance.

“We only pick those students that we know will struggle in high school,” says Hillcrest High School Principal Greg Leavitt. “Now these kids will be ahead of the class instead of always playing catch-up.”

Leavitt designed the summer academy, which received $450,000 from the Canyons School District board of education to pay teachers’ salaries and provide summer transportation for participating students.

The daily attendance stipends are funded by an annual grant of $15,000 from the United Way of Salt Lake, according to Scott McLeod, United Way’s vice president of collective impact.

McLeod says many of the academy’s students live in low-income households. And their families often rely on teenage children to watch younger siblings over the summer months, he says, or contribute their own incomes to support household costs.

“If you‘re looking at a low-income family and you’re asking their student to come to school,” he says, ”you need to be aware of the challenges those families are facing.”

McLeod also says that by focusing on struggling students before they might fall behind during the school year reduces the likelihood they will drop out before graduating.  

“We have a ‘whatever it takes’ model to really get kids successfully through high school,” he says. “If these kids are failing by [their] freshman year, they‘re gone by senior year.”

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Diane Baur (cq), 15, seeks the refuge of a slightly cooler hallway at Bingham High school as students accelerate their high school credits during the summer months to get a head-start on graduation requirements. On Tuesday, June 30, a group managed to carry on despite the AC going out a few days prior as they waited for the system to be fixed.
Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Diane Baur (cq), 15, seeks the refuge of a slightly cooler hallway at Bingham High school as students accelerate their high school credits during the summer months to get a head-start on graduation requirements. On Tuesday, June 30, a group managed to carry on despite the AC going out a few days prior as they waited for the system to be fixed.

Leavitt says the program is already showing success. Students who participated last summer earned higher grades during their freshman year. A similar program has been launched at Jordan High School.

The summer classwork students complete mirrors the assignments they’ll be asked to do in the fall, Leavitt says, and students earn a quarter-credit for completing the 6-week courses. That quarter-credit isn’t enough to skip a class, he says, but provides a cushion on a student’s transcript if they fall short of requirements or earn a failing grade for part of the school year.

“This is some very highly motivated teachers giving kids a very hands-on curriculum,” he says. “A lot of planning goes into this.”

One of those teachers, Emily Nance, asked to be part of the program so she could work with kids again after she left the classroom for a job in Canyon’s district office mentoring fellow educators.

“They‘re amazing and they inspire me,” Nance says of her students. “They‘re here giving up their summer because they want to get ahead. They want to build these skills.”

Nance sees the academy as a tool to avoid the school-to-prison pipeline, the notion that students — and particularly minorities — may be pushed toward criminality due in part to shortcomings in their educational experience.

“They‘re going to be successful,” she says. “They‘re going to graduate and they’re going to go on to do great things.”

English teacher Ani Arakelian says the program’s benefits go beyond familiarity with freshman-year subject material.

Hillcrest High School has two feeder middle schools. By attending the summer academy, Arakelian says, students also build a community with their new classmates and get to know faculty members before the school year begins.

“Coming in with the established relationship helped those students come to me,” she says, ”and ask for help when they needed help.”