Relying on BRIDGES ignores need for alternatives

By Melanie Shipley, John Jennings and Eva Zemplenyi

Island Forum

When you live on an island you have a unique appreciation for the importance of alternative routes if your only choice is BRIDGES.

The expanded BRIDGES2 Advisory Program at Mercer Island High School eliminates any alternative for students or parents who believe the program to be inappropriate in any way for their student. So what are the concerns of a substantial number of us?

First, the necessity for expanding the BRIDGES2 program lacks general consensus. The high school's Advisory Program was formed on the assumption that students do not receive the training, guidance and exposure necessary to be successful at developing meaningful relationships with their peers or adults. This is untrue. The majority of our students are well rounded and well-adjusted; the majority of parents are informed and involved. This is evident in the vast success of our high school music program, the school's athletic programs, membership in school clubs, and the consistent overall academic achievements of the student body.

We have been told repeatedly that the BRIDGES2 pilot program last year was a success and well-supported. Based on available data, this does not appear to be accurate. Many students complain that the sessions don't alter changes in their perspectives; others complain about the loss of academic time; still others say that parts of the curriculum using therapeutic modalities are intrusive and raise personal privacy concerns. For sure, some students enjoy BRIDGES2 and embrace the program, but there are equally enough that do not. This brings us back to choice. Our new associate principal, Michael Schiehser, has been reported as being affiliated with a campus-wide advisory and leadership program, Promoting Unity and Social Harmony, at Fullerton Union High School in California, but this program is not an advisory program. Rather it is an ASB club that students may choose to participate in after normal academic school hours. This alternative was never considered as a viable option to the current BRIDGES2 program.

The second concern regarding the BRIDGES2 program is the global application of experiential therapy exercises in the hands of student group leaders and teachers as opposed to trained mental health professionals. Do we really want teachers to become our children's therapists? The therapeutic dynamic used in the BRIDGES2 curriculum should not be applied as ``one size fits all.''

Thirdly, the use of limited district dollars available for expanding and improving the school's classroom offerings, including remedial classes or tutoring support, additional Advanced Placement courses, an International Baccalaureate program as well as other academic-centered programs as offered in many of our neighboring school districts, should receive first priority.

Last, and perhaps most importantly, on the list of parental concerns is the loss of academic instructional time. A few years ago, we lost 90 minutes of instructional time on Mondays for staff planning and administrative needs. The expanded BRIDGES2 program will consume an additional 86 minutes of academic instructional time per week. As proposed, the BRIDGES2 schedule next year will reduce class time to 35 minutes each period on Mondays. This is hardly adequate when you factor in the time it takes for classes to get underway and conclude. On Fridays, a day when teachers routinely administer tests, classes will be reduced to 42 minutes each with the exception of BRIDGES2, which will run for 56 minutes. These reductions are moving us closer to losing one day of academic instruction each week.

Recently, the Board of Directors and superintendent recognized the need for a non-punitive BRIDGES2 opt-out option. This is an important first step in guaranteeing parents and students the choice to not participate in the BRIDGES2 program.

Parent and community attention to major changes in curriculum is even more important and necessary now under the new governance model adopted by the School Board of Directors. Come to the next school board meeting scheduled for June 23 at 7 p.m. Let our elected representatives know of your concerns either for or against, but let us ensure that decision makers entrusted to implement curriculum do not lose sight of available alternatives that do not limit choice or compromise the academic environment.

Melanie Shipley is the parent of a Mercer Island High School student. John Jennings has been a resident of Mercer Island since 1985. He has a son who recently graduated from the high school and a son who was a freshman at the school this past year. Eva Zemplenyi has been a resident of Mercer Island for the past 16 years. One of her children graduated this year from the high school and another will be entering as a freshman this fall.

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