Tiara Trevino was really struggling at Bozeman High School, while struggling to keep her family’s violent secrets.

“I remember constantly being told I would never graduate; I was never good enough in school,” Tiara said. Many times she’d say, “I’m dropping out today.”

“No, you’re not,” Mike Ruyle, the assistant principal in charge of the Bridger Alternative Program, would tell her.

Tiara’s mother had fled from Washington to Bozeman with her five children after finding the courage to escape the man who beat, threatened and abused them for years. The family lived in hiding with help from Haven, Bozeman’s domestic violence shelter.

“Mr. Ruyle was kind of that father figure in motivating me,” Tiara said, “and I strongly feel if not for him and my mother, I would not be in school.”

On Saturday, 18-year-old Tiara graduated with 12 Bridger classmates in a ceremony held in the Emerson Cultural Center. After giving a tearful speech about how Bridger helped her overcome her difficulties, she got a standing ovation from more than 100 people in the audience. Next she plans to enroll at Montana State University.

“Amazing,” Tiara said of graduating. “All the love and support from the teachers has really helped me, after coming out of such hate and violence…. I did it!”

It was 20 years ago that the Bozeman School District created the Bridger Alternative Program as part of Bozeman High to help students at risk of dropping out.

Some were pregnant, some had academic, social or drug problems, and some simply felt they didn’t fit in at a big high school of 1,800 kids.

Bridger offered smaller, more intimate classes and the chance to work closely with teachers committed to helping “at risk” kids succeed.

Twenty years later, Bozeman school officials say the Bridger experiment has been successful, though it’s more expensive to educate students in smaller classes. Bozeman High’s dropout rate has shown improvement, fluctuating from about 84 percent of students graduating to last year’s 89.6 percent.

Bozeman Schools Superintendent Rob Watson said a better measure of Bridger’s value is that hundreds of students have graduated from the alternative program – an estimated 500 students in 20 years.

“A lot of those kids would tell you without Bridger they would not have made it,” Watson said. “I know for sure we’re meeting the needs of students who may not have succeeded in a traditional high school setting. … In my mind, it is worth it.”

Dave Swingle, the first director of the Bridger program, who ran it from 1993 to 2006, said those 500 Bridger grads are equivalent to an entire graduating class at the main Bozeman High School.

Some 406 seniors are expected to graduate at 2 p.m. today in MSU’s Brick Breeden Fieldhouse. Bridger students have the option of participating in either ceremony or both.

Alternative programs have been tried across the country and many fail after five years, Swingle said. He’s proud Bridger survived, and credits “a huge community effort.”

“It still works,” Swingle said. “It works differently, but it works.”

Saving lives

Bridger opened in January 1993 in a cramped Emerson Annex, with a parenting center for students’ babies but no phone, no secretary, no gym, no library — just a lot of energy and determination.

“We met with considerable skepticism,” Swingle recalled. “We had to continually prove its worth. … It was fun to go out and make something happen.

“We literally screwed desks together out of parts,” he said. “We had second-hand books, a second-hand building and second-hand students,” many of whom felt “discouraged or rejected.”

Swingle recruited a handful of teachers, who created a caring environment for the first 28 students. In June 1993, Bridger held its first commencement on the Emerson stage for three graduates.

One was Laura Holding, 18, whose world had gone “sideways” when she discovered as a Bozeman High senior that she was pregnant.

“I think the success of Dave’s program is the open-arms, not-judgmental approach,” Holding wrote recently. “Every one of the teachers in the program was on your side, cheering for you to succeed.”

Holding placed her baby daughter for adoption with a loving family, and used the industrial sewing skills she learned at Bridger to land a job with local backpack maker Dana Design.

She fell in love with the outdoor industry, and went on to help a friend start one backpack company, work as a senior designer for another and as a product manager for Patagonia. Today she lives in Bainbridge Island, Wash., with “my incredible husband, three children, chickens and dog.”

Bridger took a big step up in 1999 when it moved to the spacious second floor of Willson School, with support from then-Superintendent Mike Redburn and then-Bozeman High Principal Godfrey Saunders. There it had six large classrooms, a big library, an art room, shop, computers, kitchen and parenting center.

The staff grew and student enrollment grew, fluctuating from about 80 to as many as 125 students. Typically 25 to 30 students graduated each year; in 2008 there were 48 graduates.

Bridger was largely isolated, a tight-knit world unto itself, though students were welcome to take elective classes at the main high school, if willing to walk the half-mile. Bridger teachers conferred frequently about kids — who was in trouble, who was homeless, who needed emergency money for rent or food, and who wasn’t getting classwork done because they worked the midnight shift.

Always on call, Swingle lost sleep over students. He recalled underage girls whose older boyfriends got them addicted to meth – he’d phone the boyfriends and threaten them with statutory rape charges if they didn’t leave the girls alone.

Over 20 years, 11 Bridger students or graduates died.

“That was the low point,” he said.

In 2006, Swingle decided to return to work at the Museum of the Rockies and hand over Bridger’s responsibilities to someone with fresh energy.

Today, a high point for Swingle is running into Bridger graduates who are leading constructive lives. Some became nurses or teachers, some own their own auto shops or concrete businesses, and one is a veterinarian.

Shiloh McBee, 38, who graduated in Bridger’s second class, has been a welder, backpack maker, a Marine, a rock drummer – hence his elaborate tattoos — and today works making Mystery Ranch backpacks.

Bridger “was definitely the only reason I graduated,” said McBee. “To have somebody say you’re good at something – for me that was extremely encouraging.”

Swingle said he’s “so excited to see them, almost middle-aged, with kids of their own. They’re working, leading orderly lives, drug addictions are reduced.

“We’re often credited with ‘saving’ people. No. We created a quiet period when they could get their lives to run. They saved themselves.”

The big move

On a March afternoon in 2009, 40 Bridger students met with then-Superintendent Kirk Miller, pleading with him not to move the alternative program to the main high school campus.

Tearful students said they’d been bullied at the high school or gotten into fistfights, and they’d rather drop out than go back to the main school.

Miller delayed the move for a year, but insisted that moving the Bridger program would actually benefit students. The School Board approved his plan.

Facing a $1.5 million district-wide shortfall, Miller said moving Bridger would save at least $130,000. It would allow more efficient use of staff, he said, because teachers and administrators could work both at Bridger and at the main high school.

The district reported it cost $8,114 to educate each Bridger student at Willson in 2009, nearly twice the $4,427 cost per student at the main high school.

In a budget crisis, it didn’t make sense to have classes at the main high school packed with 34 kids, while a Bridger class might have only six students, said Ruyle. He had been put in charge of Bridger when Rebecca Mitteness-Wendel left after three years.

Today, three years after Bridger’s move to Bozeman High, whether or not the “school within a school” idea has been a success depends on whom you ask.

Bridger is still alive, still helping kids, and its new location has undeniable advantages for students.

Housed in a corner of Bozeman High near Main Street, Bridger has its own identity, student artwork on the walls, library and an outdoor garden. The Hawks Nest day care is down the hall, open to school employees’ children, but with priority for Bridger students.

It’s much easier now for Bridger students to take any art, music, biomedical, culinary arts or elective classes offered at the main high school, or join any team or club.

Some 200 to 230 high school students took at least one Bridger class this school year, Ruyle said, and 116 students took two or more Bridger classes.

Fears of fistfights between Bridger and main high school kids didn’t materialize. Yet some friction remains.

A week ago, eight Bridger students organized the Night of Creativity to raise money for Bridger scholarships. They showed a student documentary that aimed to “break stereotypes and show our successes,” said Amira Mortenson, a Bridger junior.

The stereotype is that Bridger students are dropouts, pregnant, druggies or “someone going nowhere,” she said. People don’t know that Bridger students are often ahead in their classes, motivated, and some graduate early.

“We don’t have it easier, we don’t slack off,” she said. “The teachers are so helpful and caring, the students are supportive. You can work at your own pace and pick things you learn about. I all of a sudden started to love school again.”

While Bridger students gained a lot from the move, the program has lost some of its old cohesiveness. The same efficiency that has teachers and students taking some classes at Bridger and some at the main high school means the community isn’t as tight.

English and reading teacher Jan Benham, who is retiring after 20 years at Bridger, said the safety net seems more frayed.

“I have loved this job, a wonderful, wonderful job,” she said. “Great kids, great colleagues… We have teachers who don’t just go the extra mile, they go the extra 10 miles.”

Benham said she doesn’t think the move has been a good one for the Bridger program. “It’s so fragmented … the staff isn’t here full-time,” she said. “There are more opportunities (for students), to be fair. But it’s harder to maintain the sense of community and cohesiveness.”

Still, Bridger students like Brooklyne Mulholland say that without the alternative program, they would not have gotten through school. Mulholland said the “awesome” teachers encouraged and inspired her when she thought of dropping out.

“I feel like Bridger is a big family,” she said.

Revolution

Bridger’s big focus today is teaching at-risk kids the skills they need to compete in a global economy, Ruyle said.

“In the old days, just having the diploma mattered. Today – it’s having the skills,” Ruyle said. The main challenge is “how do we help students to truly have the skills to be college and career ready.”

To achieve that goal, Bridger adopted two years ago a new “performance-based” program. The old requirement to gain credit for graduation was sitting through class for 180 days and earning a passing grade. Under Bridger’s performance-based program, students instead have to prove they can perform each of the “standards” or skills required in subjects like math and English.

Bridger requires students to earn an A or B to get credit – a higher standard than at the main high school. D’s and C’s “aren’t good enough,” Ruyle said.

Bridger students can take more time on a subject if needed to master it, or they can zip through faster.

“I think performance-based has been wildly successful,” Ruyle said. He called it “revolutionizing education in America.”

Trevor Stark was one of a record four Bridger graduates to earn $1,000 Worthy Student Scholarships this year. Stark was really gifted in math and finished his math requirements in February, Ruyle said.

Stark, 18, said he was bullied at his old schools and retreated to playing his Xbox all day. Thanks to Bridger, he gained confidence and a strong work ethic, and now is the first person in his family to graduate from high school. He plans to study computer programming at MSU. Stark said Bridger taught him, “as long as I try and never give up, I will succeed.”

Not every at-risk student makes it, even with Bridger’s help. Ruyle said roughly 30 percent drop out. Benham said even in the old Willson days, Bridger teachers couldn’t save every student, but she felt more confident they’d tried everything.

Next school year, Watson plans to create a new dean’s position at Bozeman High, who would work under Ruyle to oversee Bridger and the A2X alternative to expulsion and credit-recovery programs. Watson said that should strengthen support for at-risk kids.

“I think Bridger is making a huge difference,” Ruyle said.

“We’re not what we were 20 years ago. We’ve needed to evolve,” Ruyle said. “It speaks well to the district and the community that 20 years later, we are here.”

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

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