When Independence School District Superintendent Dale Herl saw a need to help failing students, it hit close to home.
He had some underprivileged students living with him and his family. That's when he got the idea for the Bridge Program.
"It was personal with me," Herl said. "We've had several young men living with us, and I would listen to them talk and how they were struggling academically and that they were limited in what they could take as juniors and seniors because how they did earlier in school.
"I got to thinking how many kids can't fully take advantage of academics because of what they did their freshman and sophomore years."
Herl, after discussing it with his fellow administrators, some teachers and some students who had fallen behind, came up with the Bridge Program, which was implemented for the first time in August at Independence Academy.
The program – which Herl believes is one of the first of its kind in the state and possibly the nation – is for William Chrisman, Truman and Van Horn high school students identified as struggling academically. They are sent to Independence Academy to be introduced to new techniques of how to learn and study. It features a smaller classroom environment, customized academic plans, emotional support and guidance, post-secondary planning and credit recovery.
After at least a semester in the program, the students are sent back to their original schools to integrate back into their normal high school environment. They work mostly on core classes but also get two electives to choose.
"We built our program from scratch," Herl said. "And we're extremely pleased with what we've seen so far. I saw a study from Chicago that showed there was a direct correlation that if students got behind their first few semesters in school that they were much less likely to graduate."
During the first semester, 35 students participated, though six or seven students needed to extend their stay into this semester. Many students who participated in the first semester were in middle school last year and didn't have enough credits in core classes and hadn't been to summer school.
This semester, 51 are students participating, mostly freshmen who struggled in the first semester. Many had as many as five or more F's in their eight classes. Administrators from each school – with input from teachers and counselors – have the final say on who is recommended for the program after considering how many classes the student has failed, attendance numbers and whether there are discipline or behavior problems.
The program also features three "graduation coaches" – retired teachers who help lend emotional support, follow the student's progress and serve as a liaison with the families. Each coach has about 20 students to work with this semester, and the coaches are assigned to each of the three high schools.
Libbi Sparks, a retired math and physics teacher at William Chrisman, is supporting Chrisman students this year as a coach. She thinks the program is already making a big difference and getting them back on track toward graduation.
"I enjoy seeing them grow. I taught last year and I had some of those students first semester, and to see how much they grew and how much it affected them was really great to see," she said. "Just to see a student come up who's down and you show them their grades and they're just thrilled. (They'll say) 'I've never had grades like that.' ... They're starting to learn what they need to do to make themselves successful."
Several students have already noticed a difference in themselves.
Liz Esry, a freshman Chrisman student in the program this semester, said she had all F's her first semester and all she cared about was sleeping. Now she said she has four A's, a B and her lowest grade is a C-minus.
"The teachers here actually help you when you need help," she said. "I can actually see me on the right path that I want to be on. Since I was 2 I wanted to be a vet, and I think now I have an actual chance of doing that."
Cosette Jorgensen, who participated in the first semester, said the program has made a big difference.
“I’ve realized it’s not that difficult to get your work in," she said. "My mindset changed. It’s not that hard. I realize that if I didn't have the Bridge Program, I might not graduate on time.”
Jorgensen also says the graduation coaches, who continue to follow the students' progress when they are integrated back into their original schools, are a big boost.
“Having the extra support is actually working very well. It’s helping a lot," Jorgensen said. "It gives me someone to talk to and someone to say, 'Hey you are doing really good ... keep it up, I’m proud of you.'”
Chris Ferri, a teacher in the program, said he has already seen huge leaps by students, including one of three students who came back to talk to this semester's group on how it helped them.
"A kid Brandon came back to talk and when he started in the program, he was at a fifth grade reading level, after three months in the program, he went to an 11.8, so almost college level. He said he can't stop reading now. He's sending me emails every day," Ferri said. "... A whole world just opened up to him when his reading level went up. It was amazing to see what a change it made in him."
Ferri said it's a matter of changing a student's mindset.
"For the majority of kids, it's a huge difference, just their work ethic," he said. "We have kids who come in who are – to put it bluntly – lazy and have developed some bad habits. Our main job is to teach them how to come to class, work from bell to bell and just be consistent with that. We say, 'Just give us two weeks, and you'll develop that habit." It's been a huge difference."
Sparks said it's simply a matter of teaching them new techniques to succeed.
"We work on attitude, we work on how you can get out of a (bad) situation, they work on setting goals every day of what they're going to do," Sparks said. "So we're trying to get them to learn how to be successful. Most of them, if you talk to them, they never did homework, they never turned in work. So learning to just turn in work is such a big thing for them."
Herl said parental approval has been strong for the most part.
"The parents have been exceptionally supportive of this," he said. "Many have cried because they were at their wit's end of what to do with their child. When they found out what we were doing for them, they were thankful that we were trying to do something to help their kids get back on track."
Herl said many other districts have asked about the program and have come to observe. He hopes to make it even larger in the future.
"We're looking to expand it even more next year," Herl said. "We still see a need, so we want to make sure that those kids stay on track to graduate."