After teaching at Bridges Alternative Learning Center for four years, David Lawson is acutely aware of the common misconception that Bridges is for “troubled” students.
That belief, he said, is misguided.
“These aren’t kids from Mars,” he said. “They are kids from our community. They’re at risk for not graduating. It’s in all our interests to see our kids graduate because we want successful people in our community.”
Bridges ALC is an alternative high school attended by about 100 students in the Prior Lake-Savage Area School district. When a student graduates, they receive a Prior Lake High School diploma. The ALC is for students who aren’t successful in a traditional school setting.
KayLee Lundell, a senior, is one of those students. Lundell just started at the ALC this school year, and until recently she shared the misconceptions about what kind of students go there.
“I used to think there’s nothing good about alternative learning centers,” she said. “But you come here and get to know the people and it’s actually cool and better for my learning.”
Due to a personal issue that unfolded between Lundell’s sophomore and junior years, she began falling behind in classes, which led to problems with her teachers. When her step-sister who attends Bridges told her about the school, Lundell was intrigued by the smaller classes, which allow teachers more time to spend one-on-one with students who might be struggling.
The more intimate atmosphere also gives teachers and counselors more time to help students work through personal problems and learn to manage their emotions, which has helped Lundell feel more supported and understood.
Lawson said he and the other teachers are able to offer relationship-based learning. When he was teaching 10th-grade history at Shakopee High School a few years ago, he had more students in his classroom in one day than attend the ALC altogether.
“To have the depth of the relationships I have here — that couldn’t happen in a mainstream school,” he said.
He noted the ALC teaches to Minnesota Department of Education standards and has all the same graduation requirements as Prior Lake High School, so the ALC is hardly a get-out-of-school-free card.
Students come to the ALC for various reasons, according to ALC Coordinator Dave Brown. But the common denominator is all the students want to succeed.
“For a lot of them it’s the large size (of PLHS) or larger classrooms,” Brown said. “Sometimes that can relate to motivational issues or attendance issues. When they get into a smaller setting where they can’t, for the sake of a better word, get lost in the crowd, these students that perhaps didn’t receive the individualization or personalization they needed are able to receive it here. It absolutely changes the experience.”
Emma Jackson of Prior Lake can attest to that. Like Lundell, this is her first semester at the ALC, but she said it’s been a vastly different experience than being at PLHS.
“I really like the atmosphere here and how I can get my work done,” Jackson, a senior, said. “Last year I didn’t think I’d be able to graduate on time, and now I will with better grades than before.”
Shelby Hansen of Prior Lake also wasn’t convinced she would graduate on time when she came to the ALC in 2014.
When Hansen started attending the ALC in 2014, her main goal was to graduate with her high school diploma.
“Being in (Prior Lake) High School was not my thing,” Hansen said. “I had pretty good grades, but toward the beginning of 11th grade they were kind of suffering. The higher your grade level, the less help you get.”
The small class sizes and relationship-based learning environment at the ALC helped her succeed, she said. She was also more comfortable seeking help at the ALC on subjects she was struggling to understand because she didn’t feel like she was holding back a class of 30 students. When she started receiving the extra help she needed, her experience with school became a positive one.
Hansen graduated on schedule in May 2016 and is now a 74 Delta in the National Guard.
“Everyone knows everyone (at the ALC),” she said. “It’s more of a home environment.”
That comfort of a home environment is what makes the ALC special, Brown said.
“There’s a social and emotional component to students’ education that, if attended to very well, will have a direct result in their academic component,” Brown said. “When (students are) feeling better, it’s easier to show up on time, be connected in positive ways, participate. When their education is going better, there’s a whole lot of secondary and third effects that go better as well — family experiences, confidence, going into the world of work and seeing success there. We see attendance improve; we see motivation improve.”
Atmosphere of success
Brown is visibly passionate about his work at the ALC and the success students have once they find the school setting that works for them. Watching a student’s growth throughout their ALC career is always a highlight for him, and he’s proud to say most students end up graduating on time once they regain control of their academics.
“Because of some of the difficulties some of our students have had, many of them come to us off track with graduating on time. But once they’re here and able to progress, the majority do ultimately graduate on time. It speaks to the resiliency of our students and it speaks to the program — that they feel like there’s a place they can be and achieve this very important milestone.”
The ALC has small groups and mentor programs to help build on that motivation and success even more. One such program is STRIVE, the school’s mentor partnership with the Prior Lake Rotary. About 25 students are in the program, and each is paired with a mentor from the Rotary Club.
Cindy Shepard is one of the Rotary co-chairs for the program, and she said it’s a personally rewarding experience for students and mentors alike.
“These kids get a bad wrap,” Shepard said. “But they want to have a place to go and a place to be. We teach them how to have goals. (The students) are motivated — we just have to channel where those motivations go.”
Lawson said some of the mentors have struggled through adversity in their pasts, which is powerful for students to hear from a successful adult.
Max Moser, another co-chair, said they try to pair students with Rotarians who share their interests if possible. For instance, a student interested in entrepreneurship might get matched with a local business owner.
“These are very sharp kids,” he said. “We’ve had entrepreneurs in here, kids who are managers, kids who are moms. These kids are absolute beasts. They handle adversity better than so many people.”
Moser added it’s important for students to have an adult who isn’t a parent or teacher caring about them. Mentors are a more neutral party, and the goal of the program isn’t to hound students about academics or push even more stress on them — it’s to show them people care and want them to succeed.
“That consistency in relationship — these kids don’t always have that in their lives,” Moser said.
A new chapter
The ALC opened nine years ago in a strip mall on Franklin Trail in Prior Lake. As part of the bond referendum voters approved Nov. 7, the district budgeted $4.3 million to construct a new building for it.
Once the new building opens, Brown hopes to have space to increase the program by about 30 students. There has been a waiting list every year for seven years, so he is confident the space will be well utilized. The ALC teachers and staff also need more space to work effectively, he said.
“This is a strip mall, so … we don’t have a lunch room, we don’t have places for students to be that they often need. We don’t have equitable facilities for our staff. For example, all of our bathrooms are in classrooms,” Brown explained. “We had an office we split in two in order to squeeze in our guidance counselor and social worker. In our main office we had to put up a wall to give space for our chemical health counselor.”
Even the mentors involved in the STRIVE program are excited about having more space. Moser said he thinks the ALC upgrade is the best investment to come from the referendum.
Students are looking forward to no longer attending school in a strip mall, too.
“I’m just excited to see the new school,” Lundell said. “I voted, and I hope we get something better than this.”