Bridge program helps teens transition to high school

Photo courtesy of Vickie Mach

Teacher Rita Zalewski (second from left) and guidance counselor Vickie Mach (right) and support staff took Taylor Truman High School summer bridge program participants, at-risk incoming freshmen, to visit the Heidelberg Project on Detroit’s east side after a field trip to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. The outdoor art, created by Tyree Guyton, is in the 3600 block of Heidelberg Street.

Sunday Times Newspapers

TAYLOR – A dozen at-risk incoming freshmen at Taylor Truman High School are starting the academic year with more confidence and assurance thanks to an on-site state-funded summer program.

The bridge program was designed to give incoming freshmen extra confidence, ninth grade English teacher Rita Zalewski said.

“Meeting other students… knowing teachers, knowing the building… this really builds their confidence,” Zalewski said. “We just brush up on their skills, tell them what to expect, so that they’re going in (with) a lot more knowledge.”

Ryan Crosby, a 14-year-old freshman at West Middle School, said the program helped him know what to expect in high school.

“The bridge program helped me out with most of the stuff that I really didn’t know about last year,” he said. “Towards the end of it I basically knew all the stuff now, and it was kind of easy from there on. So this year now it’s not really that hard for me to do math and stuff like that.”

Students transitioning from middle school to high school were nominated for participation in the summer bridge program based on teacher recommendations, low Michigan Education Assessment Program scores and low or failing grades in core subjects like math and English. Students who needed stronger social skills to navigate high school were also recommended for the bridge program, Vickie Mach, a ninth grade guidance and support counselor, said.

Mach and Zalewski joined forces with math teacher Heather Magoulick to staff the summer bridge program when funding became available at the end of the 2010-2011 school year.

Mach said eighth grade counselors at Taylor’s Robert M. West and Hoover Middle Schools were asked to identify approximately 75 incoming freshmen who they thought could most benefit from a bridge program. Parents were then invited to a June 1 informational meeting.

The bridge program met from June 20 to July 14, Monday through Thursday for four hours a day. Transportation was provided, as were breakfast and lunch.

They were in the classroom Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday with English and math components followed by adventure education, which focused on team and social skills development using cooperative games, trust building activities and problem solving challenges.

Mach said the students received 60 hours of instruction, for which they earned half an elective credit.

Since Truman fell into the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide, Mach said school officials decided to make the bridge program part of their mandated redesign plan.

Sasha Hernandez and Janessa Williams, former Truman High School students now at Ohio Central State University, facilitated the adventure education part of the bridge program during the last hour of the classroom time.

Zalewski said she focused on reading, explaining to the students how it helps them succeed. She accumulated fiction books in her classroom so students could take books home to read on their own.

As a class Zalewski and the students read Paul Zindel’s “The Pigman,” then worked on a project based on the book.

Magoulick reviewed algebra, told the students what to expect in a high school math classroom and did hands-on math learning exercises.

Zaleski said that a lot of children in the bridge program were kinesthetic, or hands-on, learners who relied on visual learning cues too.

Upperclassmen Link Leaders from the Link Crew came in and explained how they help freshmen successfully transition to high school, adding that they are there to answer questions the freshmen might not want to ask adult staff members.

Every Thursday the bridge program students went on a field trip, to locations including Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and the Heidelberg Project on Detroit’s east side.

The staff said the students were surprised by how much fun they had.

“We did give them the spiel the first day: Don’t think that you’re just going to come in here and it’s going to be pencil and paper for four hours every day,” Mach said. “It’s going to be fun. And I think by day two or three all the kids realized that.”

They modeled their program after one at Plymouth High School in Canton, and its staff shared their information with the Truman team, Mach said.

Mach said that the Plymouth bridge program staff told the Taylor Truman team that word-of-mouth would help the bridge program grow in subsequent years.

They had 15 students commit to the bridge program initially, and of those about 10 to 12 students completed it. Mach said in some instances family vacations prevented students from enrolling in the program or completing it.

Because funding came so late in the school year, Mach said they had to move quickly to identify and recruit students for the program launch and to put the curriculum together.

Despite initial challenges, Zalewski said the program has done well.

“We expect better next year,” she said. “I know the numbers don’t show it, but it’s brand new. They didn’t know anything about it – they do now.”

Zalewski said that they hope to give the middle school counselors more time to identify student candidates for the bridge program next year.

Mach said the program’s biggest success is in lessening anxiety levels among eighth graders, many of whom are afraid of beginning high school.

“We’re not these ogres, we’re not these horrible people that your brothers and sisters come home and tell you about,” Zalewski said. “We want them to succeed, so we’ll do anything to help them.”