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Bridges a different kind of school

Tim Mutrie

Traditionally, the last day of school is riddled with hijinks. A social occasion often marked by prankish antics heralding summer vacation, it’s typically a time for saying goodbyes, not intense studying.

But last Thursday, when students from the little-known Bridges High School in Glenwood Springs finished classes, the mood was decidedly academic as students tried to complete outstanding assignments.

At Bridges, the burden of responsibility for learning is placed squarely on students’ shoulders. And pupils in attendance Thursday, in rooms allocated to Bridges at the Colorado Mountain College’s Glenwood Center building, as well as the Roaring Fork School District’s Career Center facility, were feeling the strain of deadlines.

“I’m just trying to get this paper on the federal budget finished, so I can get out of here,” said LaVon Porter, a 17-year-old junior at Bridges who aspires to attend college. The Glenwood Springs native enrolled in the Roaring Fork School District alternative school following her freshman year at Glenwood Springs High School.

Like many of the approximately 45 full-time students at Bridges, Porter wanted a nontraditional educational environment.

“Our system is performance-based,” explained Bridges Principal Mike Blair, known to his students as “Mike.” “When a student enters a normal high school, if they know all the material for the whole year, they still have to be in their seat all year. But in a performance-based system, if you can prove to a teacher that you know the material to a certain performance standard like 90 percent, then you go on.”

Bridges graduated seven seniors this year, and six last year (its second year of operation), several of whom were not in school for four years.

“Conversely, if we have a student who needs more time with the material, it could take longer than the traditional four years because no one gets a D or an F from us – they have to be proficient to go on.”

Blair, a former at-risk coordinator at Basalt High School who was laid off in 1997, helped found Bridges in response to a rise in the number of high school dropouts in the valley.

“We wanted to do something about the kids who fell through the cracks,” he said. “So we contacted all those students and told them about the proposed program. We got 30 students to enroll straight away.” A different kind of school Students at Bridges hail from throughout the greater Roaring Fork Valley and do not attend “normal” classes. There are no lectures or school dances either. Bridges students must be enrolled in six classes (each with eight or fewer students) that meet twice a week for two hours. But when they’re not in class, they’re on their own – affording them an academic freedom usually not enjoyed by students until college.

“We tell our students, `This is your program, not ours,’ ” Blair said. “You are responsible for your own learning. We’ve taken the state standards and determined what activities we feel will help the students to learn those standards. Learning those standards – which are outlined in rubrics and given to each student – is the students’ responsibility.”

Students who fail to earn a certain number of credits every six weeks are placed on probation, and then expelled if their work does not improve. As a result, class time is typically a time when students independently study their course work, with help from teachers as needed.

“I was getting horrendous grades all through middle school,” admitted Bridges sophomore Billy Randell, 16, of West Glenwood. “I wasn’t dealing well with the teachers either, but really, I just couldn’t stand school.”

After an unsuccessful attempt at home schooling in his eighth-grade year, the third-year Bridges student enrolled.

“I’m not knocking Glenwood High – because I know some people who would self-destruct over here whereas they do beautifully there – but I know I’m not made for over there,” he continued. “This year I’ve been making myself work hard, and that’s what I like about Bridges. It forces me to sit down at home and say, `I have to write this paper now!’ And I want to – no one’s making me do this. I’m here because I want to be here.”

Next year, with the addition of a fourth full-time instructor, Bridges will be able to accommodate about 15 more students, for a total of 60.

Bridges students may also participate in sports teams, and music and drama offerings at other high schools in the district, as well as classes at the other schools and Colorado Mountain College to earn credit toward their Bridges diplomas.

“We don’t have to do any nagging,” said Bridges instructor Kristin Denton, who teaches English, French and health. “And that’s hard for some students and teachers when they get here. Everything they need to do is outlined for them; we’re here to help them do it.”

Denton, a former teacher at Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale and three-year veteran at Bridges, said she relishes the easy-going, casual atmosphere at Bridges.

“I really wanted to work at a place where teachers have respectful relationships with students – and that happens here – and hopefully that’s what keeps the kids interested and coming back.”

“A lot of our students have never been real successful in school before, so this is the first time some of them have been successful in school, and they feel really good about it, which is important,” Principal Blair added.

“You learn what you want to learn when you want to learn,” summarized student Samara Alcoke, 17.

“I’m pretty self-reliant and that’s one of the cool things about this place, it nurtures that quality in me,” the former dropout continued. “They just say, `Go for it,’ about anything I’m interested in. Maybe that’s why I’m still here on the last day – I want to feel good about finishing strong. But either way, I’ll be back next year to pick up where I left off.”


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