Alternative Bridges High School returning to its roots
When Bridges High School started 19 years ago as an alternative secondary education program in the Roaring Fork School District, its founding principal went door-knocking to find students who had dropped out of school.
While Lyn Bair, Bridges principal for the past 12 years, doesn’t see that as part of a restructuring plan, the school is making a decisive return to its root charge of serving as a safety net for at-risk students.
As part of that plan, the school will no longer admit freshmen, relying on home high schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt to meet the needs of those students first.
“Bridges started as a recovery program for students who had dropped out of school or who had a number of at-risk factors,” Bair noted.
That has remained a core part of the school’s mission since its inception, she said.
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But during its evolution, which included a move into a permanent facility in Carbondale eight years ago and the introduction of more “traditional” types of high school offerings, the small school with a target population of 80 students started to stray a bit from its founding model, Bair said.
As it began attracting a broader mix of students, one unintended consequence was that it was competing in a way with the regular high schools.
“We found ourselves in an adversarial relationship with the other schools, and that was never the intention,” Bair said.
So, with the school now concluding its second year on state-ordered “priority improvement” status following multiple years of low test scores, lagging student attendance and a low graduation rate, “something had to change,” she said.
A third year in that category could trigger a move by the state to intervene and either implement its own correction plan or potentially even close the school.
Key to Bridges’ restructuring plan is that it will no longer admit students in their freshman year, and in many cases not even until they turn 16. That’s when students can legally drop out of school.
The goal is for students just entering ninth grade to give their home high schools in Carbondale, Basalt or Glenwood Springs a chance first, as was the intent when Bridges started, Bair said.
“A lot of times, seventh- and eighth-graders already know they’re alternative,” Bair said. “But we want them to try their regular high school first. And if they need something special in the way of support, then let’s ask for it.”
Under the restructuring plan, home high schools will ultimately refer students who are in need of the more intensive support services through Bridges.
“In going through this process, we also looked at where we had made some good changes through our history and how we helped students be successful, because we didn’t want to lose that,” Bair said.
About 50 percent of student contact time at Bridges focuses on academics, including a goal that all students will graduate prepared to enroll in college-level classes without remediation.
The remainder of the time at Bridges, however, is spent on addressing the social-emotional needs of students that put them in the at-risk category to begin with.
That can be a variety of things, from difficult family situations to substance abuse. But all have some level of emotional need that must be addressed in addition to academics, Bair explained.
Working with organizations like YouthZone and the district’s Family Resource Centers, Bridges offers smoking cessation classes and “street smarts” classes focusing on issues like drug awareness and healthy relationships.
“We talk a lot about goal-setting and really work to educate the whole child,” Bair said. “The kids we get here know what they need to do, but they need to know someone is there to listen to them.”
Teachers, by having fewer grade-level classes for which to prepare, can refocus on more planning time and one-on-one interaction with students, she said.
As for measuring the academic success of students, Bridges also formally became an Alternative Education Campus through the Colorado Department of Education, which it had not done before.
“We called ourselves an alternative school, but the state didn’t see us that way until we took that step,” Bair said. “So, in essence, we were being judged like every other high school in the state.”
The alternative campus designation gives a school more flexibility to define its own measures of success, she explained.
Bridges also provides a resource for fifth- and sixth-year students who have not earned enough credits to graduate with their class, but who still want to earn their high school diploma.
“We want to return to our roots and come back to our mission statement … and serve the unmet needs of the valley,” Bair said.
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Ivan Jackson joined LIFT-UP as its new executive director in August.