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'Crossing the Bridge' Puts Freshmen on
Solid Ground


"Crossing the Bridge evolved out of the realization that kids had to be present, both physically and emotionally, to do well academically," Joan Pack-Rowe observed. "It's one of those things you know but you really don't know until you experience it."

Pack-Rowe is the coordinator of a full-service school-based mental health program at Aiken University High School, an urban high school in Cincinnati, Ohio. When she arrived ten years ago, she found a school with critically unacceptable rates of attendance, dropping out, suspensions, and expulsions. Crossing the Bridge is a program designed to improve those areas by providing support and guidance to incoming ninth graders. A key to the program's success is its timing -- it is held during daily sessions in the two weeks before school begins.

"Parents are invited to be involved as much as they'd like," explained Pack-Rowe. "A few come to stay and observe the first day or so, then feel comfortable enough to leave the child. Most drop off the kids and wave goodbye the first day. A number of the children are completely on their own, depending on public transportation, registering themselves, and bringing younger siblings who are in their care. Upper-class students provide babysitting, if necessary."

The ideas for articles in this Partners for Student Success series come from the resources of the National Network of Partnership Schools. Established by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, NNPS is dedicated to bringing together schools, districts, and states that are committed to developing and maintaining comprehensive programs of school-family-community partnerships.

"Based on more than a decade of research and the work of many educators, parents, students, and others, we know that it is possible for all elementary, middle, and high schools to develop and maintain strong programs of partnership," NNPS director Joyce L. Epstein told Education World.

NNPS provides a wide range of resources to help schools and school districts build strong partnerships. Click the links below to

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The program costs nothing for students and families. Even bus tokens are provided when required. Lunch is not offered, but the staff and students enjoy a nutritious breakfast together each morning. Hours are 8:30-11:30 a.m. daily, except on field trip days when those hours are extended and lunch is provided.

Crossing the Bridge revolves around three learning strands: academic, social, and environmental. It includes team-building activities, reading and math assessment, a college visit, and at least one visit to a museum or other learning institution. Volunteer engineers from General Electric and graduate students from Ohio State University work with students doing math and science activities. The students devote two days to crime scene investigation projects such as fingerprint analysis, blood typing, and fiber analysis to solve a fictitious crime. One day addresses environmental issues with a scavenger hunt and combination-lock race, which familiarize the students with the physical layout of the school.

"On another day, we teach our Swoop Plan (positive behavioral plan)," reported Pack-Rowe. "The kids move from teacher to teacher on an abbreviated schedule, as they would during a regular school day, and each teacher focuses on a different part of the behavior plan."

Every day begins with large group meetings to discuss the agenda for the day and answer questions. At the end of each day, students gather in small groups to process their feelings and experiences. Throughout the program, students with special needs are identified and addressed with interdisciplinary team intervention prior to the start of classes.

"My first Crossing the Bridge program was only three days long and had 18 kids in attendance," Pack-Rowe recalled. "Selling parents, kids, and teachers on the worth of coming to school before the school year began was not an easy task, but those 18 kids did well during their ninth grade year. They were familiar with the building, their teachers, extra-curricular activities, and some of their peers. Transition into ninth grade was much easier for them."

During the next summer, those students were Pack-Rowe's greatest cheerleaders for her new ninth graders. They met with her for several days to plan a marketing strategy and curriculum for the next program and served as youth staff for it. Now volunteers from the upper grades make phone calls to personally invite the new students to come to Crossing the Bridge and often become "big brothers" or "big sisters" for the ninth graders.

"Using the upper-class students is an integral part of the program now, and the role they play varies with the talents and comfort level of the students," said Pack-Rowe. "On the first day, they meet students at the front door and escort them to the designated area. They assist with set up, sign-in, and breakfast. They also lead team-building exercises, present skits to introduce topics for the day, guide building tours, lead small group discussions, and more."

A student who has Down Syndrome has asked Pack-Rowe to be a youth staff member for this year, and she reports that among his responsibilities will be keeping a supply of water and popsicles on ice. Crossing the Bridge is just one program, but it is a true entry point for all incoming ninth graders.

"The majority of students who willingly attend summer Bridge are those who have involved parents and who have some intrinsic motivation to do well," Pack-Rowe stated. "There is another group of students who have a history of academic and/or behavior problems, and they attend because their parents want to offer them every opportunity to do well. Then there are those in the middle who come because we've convinced their parents that they will benefit. I do a pre and post survey and, collectively over the years, 92 percent of the kids indicate that the program is helpful for them."

Funding comes from a variety of sources, including General Electric (the school's partner in education), the Family and Children First Council, social service agencies, grants, and the Mayerson Foundation, so the district bears little of the cost. Last year, Aiken averaged 96 percent attendance and a graduation rate of 98 percent. Crossing the Bridge can't claim all of the credit for those results, but the program certainly contributes to them. Pack-Rowe and her colleagues have written and published a training manual about how to start similar school-based programs.

"Even while all of these great things were happening in the school, no one in the community seemed to know," shared Pack-Rowe. "The reputation that had been Aiken for many years was going to be a hard one to change."

So she and a group of teachers began to attend community council meetings and invited its members to become active in the school. Gradually, citizens from the community started to attend school meetings, too, and to assist with special projects.

"Now we have a weekly column in the community e-newsletter, and I recently had 14 members of the community cooking 800 pancakes for the Honors Breakfast," Pack-Rowe added. "None of them have kids in the school, but all live in the neighborhood and have a great investment in their community."