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Viewpoint: A bridge to excellence

By Corey Lunn

A community member came up to me recently and thanked me for “making the impossible happen for his granddaughter.” I must have had a puzzled look on my face because he went on to explain that as a ninth grade student his granddaughter is currently taking high school level classes. This was important to his granddaughter as she is very bright, and as her grandfather proudly told me, plays six different musical instruments. 

This young lady is one of 52 of our ninth graders  who are dividing their school days between the junior high and high school in order to access higher-level courses. This is just one example of what is happening during Year 1 of our new Bridge to Excellence plan and what is yet to come in Years 2-5.

Last week principals from our junior highs and high school shared with the school board some of the exciting things that will be happening in our secondary schools as a result of Bridge to Excellence

While listening to them speak it became obvious to me that these initiatives - centered on individual learning pathways, accelerated learning options, college and career readiness and academic interventions – will not only change how we offer learning opportunities to our students, but also challenge our past ideas of how we best meet the needs of all students.

Bridge to Excellence will provide opportunities for students to learn at their own pace, rather than be held back by traditional schedules. A small sample of students are already doing some of this, but in five years’ time motivated junior high students will be able to complete requirements in core subjects like science, math, language arts and social studies in two years versus three. These students, like the girl mentioned above, will then have the opportunity to move on to the high school where they can take advantage of more than 155 course offerings, and even earn college credit in up to 24 classes. Students with demonstrated knowledge in an area, such as algebra or geometry, will also have the opportunity to test out of a course to accelerate to higher-level subject matter. In the next several years’ similar opportunities will be designed for fifth and sixth grade students.

Personalization is at the heart of our Bridge to Excellence plan. Beginning in ninth grade parents, students and staff are meeting together to develop a six-year plan to guide students’ choices of classes and experiences in high school to align with their post-secondary goals. As this expands, a heavy emphasis will be placed on interest inventories, job shadowing experiences, and participating in real-world work opportunities. The purpose is to help our students make better decisions about their future college and career plans, and provide them with relevant, hands-on learning opportunities while still in high school.

Equally important is to provide interventions for students who may be struggling in school – whether for academic reasons or as a result of social, emotional or physical challenges. The Bridge to Excellence plan addresses this by focusing on students’ individual learning styles as well as paying attention to their non-academic needs. We’ll also expand summer intervention programs to give students the extra help that they may need. Our new plan calls for building positive connections with students and their families, and working as a community to support our children. 

We’re just a few weeks into Year 1 of our Bridge to Excellence plan and already families are noticing a change. Students who have previously left our district are returning, and other students are leaving their home school districts to enroll in Stillwater Area Public Schools.  It is exciting to see Bridge to Excellence come to life and begin changing how our students learn.

Lunn is superintendent of Stillwater School District