Bridging the gap: Program aims to reduce high school drop-out rate

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BENNINGTON — The transition from middle to high school can be one of the most trying of a student's academic career, and for students who are at high risk of dropping out it can be their last chance to change their behaviors and turn their grades around. At Mount Anthony Union High School, a summer program exists that tries to give these students the tools they need to stay in school.

For almost 20 years, Richard and Danielle Crosier have been working with students that have been identified as being at high risk of not graduating, through both the Bridges Transitional Program during the summer and the Quantum Leap Exhibit Program during the year.

"The program is designed to help kids who have struggled in middle school, for any number of reasons," said Richard Crosier about the Bridges program. "Rather than remediating math, science, or social studies, we use the program as an opportunity for educational remediation."

During the intensive 16-day summer program, he and his wife work with the students to make positive changes to the ways they look at education and their strategies for dealing with problems, so that they don't make the same mistakes in high school that they did in middle school. After completing the Bridges program, most of the students transition into the Quantum Leap program, which offers smaller, more individualized classes than the typical high school setting, which can make a world of difference for a student who has struggled in that environment.

"Putting down roots in a new place can be challenging," wrote the Bridges program staff in a letter to parents this summer, "As students transition from the Middle School to the High School, there is bound to be some apprehension and some worry, and this is all normal. There seemed to be some anxiety about the transition, especially among our incoming freshmen... These are all normal and legitimate concerns. We will continue to work on easing some of these anxieties and acclimating out students to the high school climate. When the school year begins, we want all of our students to know that they are fully prepared and fully supported."

Scientific studies have shown that age 16 is when many learned behaviors become ingrained in a student, said Crosier. In order to fix some of the negative behaviors that might be hindering a student's ability to succeed in school, there needs to be targeted intervention before that point, which is where the Bridges program comes in. "This is the crucial age to reengage students in academics, provide support services, and challenge them intellectually," continues the letter, "It is essential for students at this age to make use of the (mental) connections that will support academics, open their minds to relevant real-world issues, develop critical thinking, and cultivate a strong work ethic. In essence, our students are building the connections that will last a lifetime."

Gabby True, who graduated from MAUHS in 2015 after participating in Bridges and Quantum Leap, won't hesitate to admit that wasn't a great student in middle school. She regularly pretended to be sick so she could avoid going to a Spanish class that she was struggling in, and would wake up in the morning and dread going to school at all. She was quiet and reserved, and couldn't stand speaking in front of groups, and her grades had begun to suffer for it. After she failed eighth-grade math, she was given two options: take summer school to make up the credit, or make it up by participating in the Bridges program.

True said that while the work in the intensive program was challenging, working with the staff helped her turn her academic career around. "They made you very comfortable and got to know you," she said, adding that once she found an environment that she was comfortable in, learning became much easier. "If I hadn't failed that class, I wouldn't have heard about this."

Richard Crosier said that the program isn't focused on the traditional curriculum, but instead focuses on identifying skills and proficiencies that can be developed in the students that will help them after graduation, including literacy, communication skills, and marketable skills. "We want our students to be able to speak well, write well, and advocate for themselves when they need help," he said. "Our standards for those things a very high." He said that while no student is expected to produce perfect work, every one is encouraged to put forth the best work they can possibly produce, something they can be proud of.

Much of the Bridges coursework involves self-reflection. Students consider their personality types, learning styles, and what has caused them to struggle in the past, and work with the staff to find learning strategies that can work for them. Once the school year starts, they can apply these new strategies to their classes, whether they take those classes through the high school or through Quantum Leap.

One of the most important aspects of the Quantum Leap program, which is put on through a partnership with Bennington College, is the end-of-semester student exhibit, where students present their work to educators, parents, and community members. Even though she hated public speaking, True said that the familiar setting of the Quantum Leap classroom and her familiarity with the topic made it easier. "I knew everything I was talking about, and I knew most of the people coming in," she said.

Like most students who participate in Quantum Leap, True took some classes there and some through the high school. While her anxiety about school never fully went away, she learned to work through it. "I still dreaded going to classes, but I sucked it up and went," she said. Classes in the Quantum Leap program, however, were different. "I didn't have anxieties back here," she said, referring to the school's East Campus, where the classroom is located, "I was comfortable."

In total, Crosier said that the program has about a 50 percent success rate in helping high-risk students earn their diplomas. However, he said, seeing those students graduate is a fantastic feeling for an educator, and is both the reason he became a teacher and what keeps him in the profession. The program, he said, has been his and his wife's life focus for years. "Our children were raised in these classrooms," he said.

"When I talk about my high school experience, it's usually about this," said True, gesturing to the Quantum Leap classroom where she had spent so many hours while in school. "If it hadn't been here, I would have been miserable. I would have struggled so much."

Reach staff writer Derek Carson at 802-447-7567, ext. 122 or @DerekCarsonBB

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