Creating connections between various groups of high school students is never an easy task. In 2006, Mercer Island High School piloted a new program called Bridges to help foster a sense of community among students.
Since its first year, the program has changed and evolved, and more changes are likely prior to the next school year as the district completes its third review of the program. Bridges, which currently meets for 55 minutes every Monday morning, pairs high school students covering all four grades into small groups with a teacher advisor. The curriculum and topics covered in the class have varied during its existence, but the purpose remains essentially the same.
“The goal is to create connections and a sense of belonging in the school community,” said MIHS principal John Harrison.
Several members of the board said they were concerned that the overall goals of the program were not clearly enough defined for students, staff and parents.
“I believe you can build connections through curriculum; it’s finding that balance between themes and topics you want to get across. My goal is that connections piece,” said Harrison. “The meaningful connections to adults is a key to the success of an advisory program.”
The review, which included a student survey, as well as a teacher survey and parent input, found that 80 percent of the students surveyed feel the program is meaningful or helpful. Fifty-nine percent of the parents surveyed and 58 percent of the teachers agree that the program has a positive influence at the school, but many expressed concerns with the format and model of Bridges.
Some of those concerns included the student leader suggestions, a topic that members of the board said they’ve heard about from students and parents at the high school. Another was that there were too many topics or issues trying to be covered.
Harrison said the student leader application process is one of the program areas that has seen a lot of change over the years. Most recently, students were nominated by their classmates or teachers. Then if empty spots were still available for Bridges leaders throughout the school, students who were interested in being a leader but had not been nominated applied and were chosen by a lottery.
Board member Dave Myerson said he had heard concerns about the selection process and wondered if it would be simpler to move to a straight lottery system, also helping to alleviate more pressure on students in what is already a highly competitive atmosphere.
“A large part of the program’s success is the student leaders,” said Harrison. “We’ve seen that in previous reviews, and it is a challenge. The Bridges student leaders was a big issue at the faculty meeting.”
Michael Schiehser, the district’s director of secondary learning services who helped Harrison complete the review of the program, said another factor with student leaders is that it is important to remember that they themselves are still students and that the maturity level to handle and facilitate discussions on certain topics isn’t there yet. One solution to that, outlined in the review, Schiehser said, would be making sure that staff are more involved.
“The other hard part is that this just won’t be the thing for some kids,” said board member Janet Frohnmayer.
Another large area of concern for parents was the apparent lack of communication about what was going on during Bridges. According to the review, parents would like to see more “resources and opportunities to talk to their students about the topics covered.” The review recommends publishing lessons for Bridges ahead of the time that topic is covered and that information should be available online.
“We concluded that Bridges is worth keeping,” said Superintendent Gary Plano during the board meeting where the review was presented.
As the review moves forward to gather more information about what possible changes to make to Bridges, one thing which will be considered is when to hold the class.
“Are we sure 55 minutes on Monday is the right time to do it?” asked board member Lisa Strauch Eggers. The answer from Harrison: no, and they are considering their options.
The program costs approximately $55,000 per year to run, with $25,000 of the total covered by funds from the Mercer Island Schools Foundation. The MISF money helps pay for student and staff training, as well as instructional and support materials. On top of the overall cost, the district pays a $400 stipend to each staff member who is a Bridges advisor, equaling roughly $30,000.
The district will take the proposed recommendations and create a survey for parents, staff and students on possible changes, which will then be used to gauge which changes to the program should and will be made for next year.
For more information about Mercer Island High School and the school district, visit www.misd.k12.wa.us/schools/hs.