BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Eyes closed, feet flat on the floor, Youri Guerrier, 13, tried hard to clear his mind, never peeking.
The only sound was teacher Karl Krauss’ voice, encouraging this class of seventh-graders on the second floor of an old brick school building to focus on their breathing, forget about their morning, don’t think about the day ahead.
“If your mind wanders, count your breaths,” Krauss urged during the 5-minute session cushioned in between second and third period at The Bridge Academy Charter School.
The mindfulness exercise is aimed at increasing one’s ability to focus and think. It is one of several tools being used to help revive one of the state’s first charter schools, which was put on probation by the state Department of Education for poor test scores and high suspension rates.
In 2016, under the new Common Core test, 18 percent of Bridge seventh and eighth-graders scored at grade level on the state test, sharply lower than the 43 percent proficiency achieved under the state’s mastery test given in 2014. In math, 5 percent of Bridge middle school students achieved proficiency in 2016, compared to 47 percent under the old test.
In both cases in 2016, a smaller percentage of Bridge students passed the test than did so in traditional public schools in Bridgeport.
Bridge, located on Kossuth Street, has been given a three year renewal instead of the standard five, but really has just one year to show improvement. The school is doubling down on reading instruction, carving out room to help disruptive students refocus.
There is an all-hands-on-deck approach, the kinds that has been the school’s hallmark.
“We are still a safer, closer, warmer place,” Principal and Director Tim Dutton said of the school he helped create.
In the beginning the idea was college prep — give them mentors; make them all apply to college.
Over time, the school realized that is not why parents sent their kids to The Bridge.
“They send them here because, I think, we have a reputation of doing well with tougher kids,” said Rachel Allison, another Bridge founder.
Charter schools were still a new concept in 1997. The state was looking for fresh ways to promote innovation and student diversity when it joined a growing movement to let public schools exist outside the control of local school boards.
Dutton and Allison started Bridge with former State Rep. Felipe Reinoso. They were teachers assigned to the freshmen cluster at Warren Harding High School and were tired of seeing freshmen classes of 500 shrink to 250 by senior year.
“We wanted to give all those ninth-grade dreams a better springboard,” Allison said.
Dutton felt he was on the forefront of a civil rights battle for urban education. Still does.
Neither looked too far into the future.
“We try to be the boy scouts in business and keep going,” Dutton said, acknowledging, “our application wouldn’t get a second look today.”
A few Connecticut charter schools have closed or been shut down over the past two decades, but 2015 was a particularly rough year. The operator of a Hartford-based charter management group was caught lying about his credentials and not conducting background checks. Other charter schools were cited for suspending twice the number of students as traditional public schools.
Rules were tightened. Bridge is the fourth charter school put on probation by the state in recent years.
Students, alumni and parents at Bridge come to its defense. In a first-period Algebra II class, a junior approaches a visitor in the back of the room and brushes by, asking, “Are you going to shut us down, miss?”
John Rodriguez, Bridge’s new executive board president, said it takes time to bring students entering at far below grade level in the seventh grade up to where they need to be.
“If you look at the graduating class. We have an excellent graduating class,” he said. “The job will be accomplished.”
“Teachers are always on top of the kids,” said Atlagracia Hilario, parent if a seventh-grader. “I hope this school stays for a long time, because I want my other kids to come here.”
Bria Jackson, a Bridge senior, said her transition when she arrived in seventh grade was hard, but worth it.
“They shaped me to be a better person,” Jackson said. “I could complain about the reading points and the math facts and uniforms, but they all make you smarter.”
Some students are happy with the college prep they receive. Others say it could be better.
“It wasn’t what I needed it to be,” said Kierra Montalvo, a senior and second in her class. “I know at a point it’s our responsibility to take care of things. But you need someone to tell you what is FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). We needed more guidance to understand.”
Montalvo is going to the University of Connecticut in the fall. Her sister, Karina Montalvo, graduated from Bridge five years ago, and now from UConn. The elder sister doesn’t see probation as such a bad thing.
“I think there is nothing wrong with trying to get people to do better. Maybe it is just the kind of kick they needed,” she said.
Class periods are an hour long. Teachers are all certified.
In Katherine Lynch’s 12th-grade English class, stacks of “Hamlet” and “The Odyssey” line a chalk board.
“Only six people did (the) assignment due yesterday,” she admonishes the class.
The school’s curriculum has always been filled with reading. Now that the seriousness of the Common Core curriculum and its emphasis on complex texts have sunk in, the focus is on making sure students know how to read. A good number didn’t when they arrived as seventh-graders.
Krauss, a math teacher, has been teaching at Bridge for 17 of its 20 years. He starts the day with an ice breaker-type exercise called Circle of Power and Respect that is also in the school’s new bag of tricks.
“It gives them a soft landing to their day,” he said.
Then students return to their seats, grab computerized tablets from a cart and start poring over the multiplication of fractions in groups.
“We know many of you are on the path for mastering this concept,” Krauss said.
Students work off check lists that allow them to progress at their pace, changing activities once they show mastery.
“It allows top students not to be held back and leaves others more time,” Krauss said.
When classes switch for guided reading, the middle school breaks into small groups to talk about the book they are collectively reading. A group led by Anika Knox is reading “Messenger” by Lois Lowney.
“It’s getting good and weird,” Knox said. Students start talking about characters and words the author chose.
Before Bridge, Allison said, some students had read one or two books a year. Now, on average, they read 30, she said.
“Our proficiency level is quite low… but they showed tremendous growth last year,” Allison said.
Unlike many charter schools, The Bridge never franchised. The school started off small and still is, with 281 students across grades 7-12.
Two decades and 620 high school graduates later, being one of the first charter schools in the state probably hurts Bridge’s cause more than it helps.
“I mean, how did you get into this position?” said Joe Vrabely, a state Board of Education member.
Vrabely supports schools of choice — charter, magnet or technical high schools. But he told Dutton that without better test scores, he would vote to revoke The Bridge’s charter.
“It’s not that they should be held to a higher standard,” Vrabely said. “It has to be at least as good as the district’s.”
Terry Jones, a state school board member from Shelton, said he continues to view charter schools as filling an important niche.
“But the data from Bridge is disappointing,” Jones said.
Jones, a farmer by profession, is most familiar with Common Ground in New Haven, also one of the state’s first charter schools.
“What they accomplish in New Haven is nothing short of a miracle,” Jones said.
Common Ground, with no middle school, doesn’t take the state Smarter Balanced test. Last spring, 30 percent of Common Ground juniors met proficiency in reading on the SATs, same as The Bridge.
Dutton points out that most of his graduates go to college, and many stay.
“Of the class of 2014, 82 percent went onto a second year of college,” he said.
The corrective plan Bridge filed with the state calls for more course rigor and increased proficiency in each grade by 20 percent between 2016 and 2018.
The hope is to get the school on track, said Desi Nesmith, chief turnaround officer for the state Department of Education.
“I think we are going to see improvements within the year,” Dutton said.
Information from: Connecticut Post, http://www.connpost.com