“What did you do last summer?”
“I worked at the Boston Police Academy. And I’m doing it again this year. I participated in a camp last year but now I get to work there!”

It’s a not a bad way to spend a summer as a sophomore in high school, getting hands-on training as a police officer!

While an average American teen might spend her summer staring at a television all day or working at a local fast food chain full time, at the Academy of the Pacific Rim, school doesn’t just end in June. Instead, students are taking part in pre-college programs, completing volunteer projects, or working as summer interns to try out a potential career first-hand.

I have had the great privilege of guiding our high school students through this process of finding placements and then reporting back to their peers and faculty about the great learning they experience each summer. Because more than half of our students come from low income families, connecting them with the countless scholarship opportunities out there is a large part of our work.

What a thrill it is to hear a student talk about conducting research on a coral reef in the Bahamas through Earthwatch, or rebuilding homes through Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans or taking classes at Harvard University through the Harvard Crimson Summer Academy or learning how to rebuild a bike for kids in need through Bikes not Bombs! The excitement and buzz it creates in the school is electric!

But it wasn’t always this way, and it’s been quite a journey to get to where we are now. The Pacific Rim Enrichment Program (PREP) began in the school’s early years, when our academic year lasted until mid-July and included a final month of intensive tutoring. At the time we had a number of students who did not need this extra tutoring time and participated in programs off-campus instead, receiving credit for their work. Thus, PREP was established as an opportunity for advanced students to participate in worthwhile programs out in the community to prepare them for future careers and college.

As we began graduating our first students from APR, however, colleges took notice of PREP: our students were spending anywhere from 75 hours or even the entire summer engaged in intense learning experiences, and truly stood out in the applicant pool. It became clear that this was something we wanted all of our students to do.

Several years ago, we re-structured our school year to finish at the end of June and tutoring became part of the regular extended school day. We made PREP a high school requirement, and it has grown into a hallmark of our entire educational program here at APR. Colleges (and future employers) tell us that PREP is one of the many unique ways our students set themselves apart from their peers around the country.

It’s all about students pushing their learning in new directions and experiencing new things and developing into responsible global citizens. When students take classes on a college campus at Boston University or Yale or Harvard, they get to experience what college will be like in only a few years’ time. When students travel to Panama or Haiti or Costa Rica to help in small villages working with youth and families, they get to experience a feeling of helping make the world a better place with each small act they do. When students are backpacking and kayaking through the wilderness of Alaska and Colorado, they come back to our school as leaders, ready to be role models for their peers.

When we speak about teaching the “whole child”, this is exactly what we mean. Where else can students get the experience of college, a future career or the feeling of giving back to their communities first hand? Expanding their learning outside the walls of APR creates future leaders and strong members of the community. The skills they receive as part of PREP are gifts they will have for a lifetime!

So, the next time you ask a student, “What did you do last summer?” Don’t be surprised if you get the surprising (and exciting) answer:

“Forgive me if I seem a little jet lagged. I just got back from hiking the Silk Road in China.”