Crossing a bridge toward learning
Alternative school program details success in its approach
New Berlin — Sometime last year, about a dozen New Berlin middle school students who could not have cared less about school suddenly became studious, concerned about grades, and, best of all, successful.
What made the difference was the Bridges program that the New Berlin schools started last year.
During an August presentation by Bridges teachers, the New Berlin School Board heard about the program's early successes.
The Bridges alternative learning program is for students in grades 7, 8 and 9 at both New Berlin middle schools, though the program is based at New Berlin West. It has its own room with the two teachers who instruct in the four core subjects of English, math, science and social studies.
The students attend some other classes, too, but in the Bridges classroom, teachers Georgette Miller and Gina Salmieri stand for no nonsense and basically teach the students how to study. Students also learn how to handle frustration without acting up and not to give up if they fail.
The results were astonishing.
Besides across-the-board improvements in grades, one of the Bridges students even walked away with the highest score on the final exam in her biology class, Salmieri said. And all the kids passed the four core subjects.
The teachers compared performance on quarterly classroom tests in each subject before and after the students enrolled in the Bridges program. Every student scored higher with the Bridges program.
Student performance in the four subject areas combined could be measured as a number, in which a grade of A was worth 4 points and an F was worth nothing. One student had a pre-Bridges score of 12, which shot up to 35 points after Bridges.
In terms of individual subjects listed as a letter grade, one student got an F on a quarterly English test pre-Bridges, which went up to an A- after Bridges. His or her comparative performances on other English tests were a D in the first quarter in 2008-09 going to a B- after Bridges in 2009-10, F to a B and F to a B-.
Another Bridges student went from an average of not quite a D on the four quarterly math tests pre-Bridges to nearly a B after Bridges. Another student went from an F in math on the four quarterly tests to a B.
Not all results were as dramatic - in some cases, improvements were were only about one letter grade - but progress was still evident.
Encouraged by own success
It isn't that the struggling middle school students can't do the work, Miller said. It is that they need to learn how to do it, and they need to experience success.
"These are not risk-takers," she said, noting that some students don't want to experience failure.
When they do well, they realize they can succeed by studying. "So, the rewards are that when they study they get the good grades," Miller said. "They become grade-conscious."
These kind of dramatic results come from dramatic actions. Once the students enter the Bridges program, they have their teachers and parents watching over them.
The teachers stay late with the students as needed, either helping them study or keeping them at school until they finish their homework.
In that regard, parents also play a key role because they have agreed to pick their children up no matter how long they are kept at school. One stubborn student procrastinated for two hours before realizing that he really was not going to go home until he finished his homework. He and his teacher did not leave until 8 that night.
Those who push too far also can end up having to spend Saturdays at school with one of the teachers doing the work they should have done during the week.
In other ways, parental involvement is intense, Salmieri said. Parents are contacted either by phone or e-mail daily with most parents and sometimes multiple times a day. Many parents have learned how to carry out the program at home.
Sticking to it
The Bridges students know that even when they leave the program, they can still get help or have their feet held to the fire by their Bridges teachers, Miller said.
All the way to graduation, if the students falter or go back to their old study habits, "we'll be there watching," she said.
"We're hoping by the time they're seniors, they won't need us," Miller said, noting that the second semester ninth-graders are already pretty independent of the teachers.
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