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School time for MIHS Bridges to be cut

The curriculum at Mercer Island High School is always in flux,adapting to learning requirements and the needs of students. Most are done with little fanfare. But when the Bridges Advisory program at the high school was proposed, it ignited a firestorm.

After a drawn-out struggle in 2004 to bring an advisory program to MIHS — the result of a survey that showed students were feeling a lack of connection among peers, teachers and the community — Bridges was introduced with the goal of improving school atmosphere and relationships.

Since its inception three years ago, Bridges has redefined student-teacher connections, reshuffled the MIHS curriculum and changed the student body as a whole. It has been called both a success and a waste of time. And now, it’s set to change.

“The best thing we can do to ensure the success of Bridges is to be honest with what’s working and what’s not working,” said MIHS English teacher and track coach Chris Twombley, who oversees the program.

After a year-long pilot, MIHS adopted Bridges as a permanent part of the school curriculum in 2005-2006. Students meet in cross-grade level groups of 20 to 30, for a half hour on Mondays and Fridays. The time is spent discussing topics as varied as racial tolerance and career day, AIDS education and homecoming, depression and high-school cliques. There is also a fair amount of team-building and socializing.

“It’s been a very beneficial program. I’ve made life-long friendships from my Bridges group,” said Bridges student leader Emma Eberts, who will continue her position as a senior next year. “It creates an opportunity for people to make friends out of their grade.”

Yet not everyone shares Eberts’ enthusiasm.

A number of parents in the community complain that Bridges has turned into a social hour and that their teenager’s time in school could be better spent.

In a 2005 story in the Reporter, Eva Zemplenyi was quoted as saying that her daughter was dissatisfied with Bridges and dropped the program after four weeks.

“Ask some kids, and they’ll say it is a waste of time but they tolerate it because it gets them out of class, and they eat,” Zemplenyi said.

Some parents went straight to the Mercer Island School Board, asking that administrators re-evaluate the program’s aims and implementation.

Their concern was heard.

In April, the district conducted a Bridges survey among parents, students and faculty, the results of which were discussed during last week’s school board meeting.

According to the student survey, taken by 68 percent of the MIHS student body, half said they felt Bridges should continue as it is in the future, while 30 percent said they believed the program needed changes. Twenty percent of students were unsure about Bridges and 7 percent said it should be discontinued.

In comparison, 11 percent of MIHS staff (88 teachers were polled) said the program should continue, while 59 percent said it should continue with changes. However, nearly two-thirds of staff respondents said that too much time was being allocated to Bridges, and more than half reported that the program was not worth its impact on classroom instructional time.

And then there are the parents. Of more than 1,200 MIHS families, just 217 parents responded to the survey. Although this number doesn’t exactly provide a representative voice, 43 percent said the program was worth continuing.

“I actually get a fair amount of feedback about Bridges,” board member Adair Dingle said. “There is the concern about the instructional time lost. I’ve received two e-mails in the last month about topics not being covered in science courses for the WASL, and one parent targeted Bridges as the cause due to loss of instruction time.”

The survey statistics reveal the fundamental dilemma behind Bridges: Students like the socializing aspect, while many teachers and parents feel the time and effort dedicated to Bridges could be more productive.

As a result, administrators have decided to cut the Friday morning Bridges class next year, which was often turned into a social event called “Celebration Fridays.” According to the new 2007-2008 schedule, Bridges will only meet for 55 minutes on Monday, opening up Fridays for academic instruction.

In addition, MIHS staff has developed a work plan to more clearly define the goals of Bridges and expectations for it. Starting this fall, the Bridges curriculum will center on quarterly themes approved by program administrators.

Meanwhile, those involved with the program continue to be optimistic.

Defending the social merits of Bridges, Twombley pointed out that for every parent who complains, there are three who applaud the program.

“I could line up more people who say their kids need down-time, that they’re stressed and overworked. That they need to connect,” he said. “This is what high school is about. It’s more than just grades, it’s about being people and learning to connect with others.”

Yet the English teacher didn’t shy from addressing Bridges’ problems.

“I’m the first to admit there are things that need to be improved,” he said. “Plus, this year’s group had a change in leadership, which is always hard.”

Bridges co-founder Mary Margaret Welch, who raised support for the program in 2004, passed her responsibilities as Bridges director on to Twombley when she left the school district in 2006.

“I’m a very different coordinator than Mary Margaret,” Twombley said. “So the kids and teachers have had to adjust to my style.”

Changes aside, Twombley said the biggest obstacle is getting Bridges leaders, already bogged down with homework and extracurricular activities, to devote more of their time to leadership and advising workshops.

Because much of the program centers on peer counseling, training in this area is crucial, Twombley said. But since students don’t receive credit for Bridges, there is little incentive to take on hours of training.

“The problem is, the group of kids who tend to sign up for Bridges are often those who are doing the most in school. So if college and grades are their first priority, then what’s the first thing that goes to the wayside?” he said. “That’s why we’re looking at possibly offering credit for Bridges, to make training more enticing.”

Yet some students complain that there’s actually not enough to do. “On Fridays my group found ourselves trying to kill time,” said MIHS senior Maddie Cary. “Mr. Twombley’s done the best he can to come up with activities, but it’s hard to fill every [Bridges meeting] with things to do.”

Eberts pointed out that each Bridges group is different — some more successful than others. But overall, the senior said she believes the program is worth its merit.

“I know there are some groups that have had problems, but either way, Bridges forces you to become more open with people and break away from your clique,” she said. “And that’s a huge issue [at MIHS].”

For more information on Bridges and the April student/parent/faculty survey go to www.MISD.k12.wa.us

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