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San Francisco Teacher's Nonprofit Aim High Has Been Hitting the Mark For 36 Years

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) -- A San Francisco man is retiring from leading an innovative summer enrichment program he helped create 36 years ago.

From science to service, from dancing to designing, thousands of middle school students discover new things and stretch their skills each year at Aim High. Retired San Francisco teacher Alec Lee co-founded the program in 1986 to close the achievement gap among low-income students.

"Really fun, creative, inspirational opportunities are just critical for middle school students," Lee said.

Lee had worked with Horizons Upward Bound in Detroit and founded Aim High with colleague Eleanor McBride. The program provides free, hands-on learning for underserved 5th through 8th graders for up to four summers. It runs in 16 sites in the Bay Area including Napa and Tahoe.

According to the nonprofit's surveys, the model works: 98 percent of its graduates went on to college, almost twice the national average for low-income students.


"So it's project-based learning. It's culturally relevant curriculum. It's teamwork. It's fun. It's inspiration. It's teachers who were fantastic role models," Lee said of the model for the program.

Program funding is primarily through private philanthropy, foundations and individual donations. Aim High hires hundreds of instructors each summer, from professionals to college students and high school interns.

The experience trains the next generation of educators. particularly teachers of color. 2009 program graduate Liliana Santos returned to Aim High to teach in high school and college. Now as Cesar Chavez Elementary's Beacon site director, she shares with young students what Aim High ignited in her.

"It made me more confident in my academic abilities. The teachers really cared about the work we did during the summer," Santos said.

Terrence Riley, Aim High's Vice President of programs, is a 1990s alumnus who found a sense of community among people who shared his passion for education.

"We were all different and we were all welcome for who we are. So that sense of belonging was instilled in me from Aim High."

And graduates say that empowering spirit came from the top.

"For Alec, he always puts people first," Riley said. "Everybody should be entitled to a high-quality education. That's what his legacy is."

LEARN MORE: Jefferson Awards for Public Service

Lee served as Aim High's executive director for 35 years. Newly retired, he's ready to watch the nonprofit soar higher.

"How do I feel about it? I'm quite honestly just filled with gratitude," said Lee.

Gratitude for the students, teachers and families in the Aim High community.

So for inspiring more than 15,000 middle school students and training thousands of young teachers to aim high over 35 years this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Alec Lee.

Note: This summer is especially important with the learning loss that's happened in the pandemic. Students can still apply for the summer program that starts in June and July and the organization is hiring hundreds of teachers and college students. Find out more at


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