Putting science class paraphernalia into cardboard moving boxes, Bridger Alternative Program student Haley Hedrick said she's OK with Bridger's upcoming move from its longtime home at Willson School to Bozeman High School.

"It's totally just a building," Hedrick, a 17-year-old junior, said Thursday. "I don't think it's going to change us at all."

Taylor Bristow, 16, was more pessimistic.

"If you move kids back to Bozeman High, you're going to have problems. Some kids moved away to get away from bullies," Bristow said.

Nevertheless, he's planning to make the move next fall.

Bridger was created 19 years ago as a branch of Bozeman High to help pregnant teens and other students at risk of dropping out. It has always been in a separate location, at Emerson School or Willson School, about half a mile from the main high school.

The budget-driven decision to move Bridger to a corner of Bozeman High was controversial. Some supporters warned that Bridger kids might drop out rather than return to the main campus, where many felt unsuccessful and some felt traumatized.

Mike Ruyle, the assistant principal in charge of the 70-student Bridger program for the past year, has been working hard to plan the move and share his enthusiasm.

"I'm real excited," Ruyle said. "I think there will be a lot of neat opportunities available" when Bridger is no longer distant from the main high school campus.

Ruyle stressed that it will be much easier for Bridger kids to take elective classes, join in sports and activities, and benefit from supports like the writing center and computer labs.

"We have some kids who have been through difficult times," Ruyle said. "Rather than shield them ... we're going to give them the skills to succeed in the real world."

The move will end having "separate but equal" schools, he added, which, just like in the segregated South, was "inherently unequal."

"It's not two separate schools -- they're all Bozeman kids," he said.

The move won't undermine Bridger's sense of family, Ruyle said. Bridger grads have said year after year that the main quality that helped them stay in school and graduate is that Bridger is like a family.

Teachers, counselors and support staff have all chosen to be at Bridger, and student-teacher ratios are low. That won't change. Bridger's veteran teachers, librarian and secretary also plan to stay with the program.

"That family component is the most crucial component of Bridger," Ruyle said. "It comes from having a small setting and personal relationships."

In the past there has been some friction between the two schools. Bridger students have complained of being bullied or claimed teachers at the main school don't care, while people at the main school have complained privately that Bridger students don't want to move because they don't want to give up smoking across the street.

"One of the fallacies is our kids are not smart," Ruyle said. "We're not going to dumb down the curriculum."

To build bridges between the two schools, Ruyle said several teachers from the main high school came to Bridger this year to teach psychology, drama, English, math and a yearbook class, which teaches everything from computer design to deadlines.

For the first time, Bridger students this year produced a professional, hard-back yearbook, a source of pride for the school. Bridger students attended the Psych Fair at the main school. One Bridger student, Sonia Antar, was a state champion track runner on the varsity team.

"I think once kids get to know these people, that fear has largely evaporated," Ruyle said. "I've witnessed no one dropping out."

He listed other advantages to the move. Bridger students will be able to take any Bridger class plus any regular high school elective. Bridger students will have more options than other students to take online classes from the state's new Digital Academy and to earn credit.

Bridger's core classes will be scheduled in the morning, so students will stay together. Bridger teachers will have their final period free for class preparation, so the staff can easily talk about how to help students who are having problems, from academics to homelessness.

Another improvement is that "hybrid" classes will be offered to incoming freshmen at risk of dropping out, taught by Bridger teachers. Bridger is formally open only to students in the three upper grades, and some teachers have argued that help for at-risk students should begin earlier.

"Seventy percent of Bridger kids have already failed freshman math, science or social studies," Ruyle said. "By the time they get here, they scramble to get credits."

One loss for Bridger is that it will no longer have two counselors dedicated just to its students, because of budget cuts and a reorganization of all school counseling. Longtime Bridger counselor Anne Sullivan will still be the main counselor for Bridger students, but counselors from the main high school will also work with Bridger kids, Ruyle said.

"I don't see it as we're losing a counselor -- we're gaining every counselor," he said.

Bridger's young parents' day care for students with babies will be expanded into the "Hawks Nest" Early Learning Center. Last year it cared for eight Bridger babies from birth to age 2, said coordinator Linda Tarinelli. Next year it will be open to children up to age 5, including fee-paying school district employees' kids. It will be housed in F-wing and the adjacent courtyard.

The Bridger program will move into C-wing, the northeast corner of Bozeman High's campus, near Wendy's restaurant. After renovations, it will have slightly more space, Ruyle said, with five or six classrooms, a library and use of the old high school cafeteria.

Bridger will continue its tradition of holding its own graduation ceremonies, and letting Bridger students participate in their own, Bozeman High's graduation or both.

Bridger's ceremony -- Saturday noon at Willson Auditorium -- will mark the end of the Willson era. Some 32 students are graduating this year, and about 26 will walk. A sign in the Bridger office urges students to "Survive the hassle, get the tassel."

Finals for younger Bridger students were moved one week early so that next week, on the last days of school, they can help pack up for the move.

"They'll have kind of a bonding moment," Ruyle said, "saying goodbye to one place and hello to another."

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.