Three years ago the Bridger Alternative Program at Bozeman High School adopted a new way of teaching students at risk of dropping out, and administrators say it's paying off.

For the first time, Bridger students' reading scores last spring were as high as those in the rest of the high school, Assistant Principal Mike Ruyle said Tuesday. He spoke at Bozeman School Board trustees' annual lunch visit to the school.

On the state standardized CRT test, 86 percent of Bridger students scored proficient or advanced in reading, which was up from 64 percent a few years ago. In math, 29 percent of Bridger students scored proficient, another all-time high, Ruyle said.

On the ACT college entrance exam, given last year for the first time to all Montana juniors, the average score for Bridger students rose from 17.1 to 19.1.

The biggest change Bridger made three years ago was adopting “performance-based” learning. That means students must show they're proficient in specific skills and knowledge to pass a class. Getting by on C's and D's is no longer good enough. Students can learn at their own pace, master the material or skill, and go on to something else.

“Students have to take ownership of their learning,” Ruyle said. “Great things are happening. We have a great team. … It's working, it's getting kids more engaged.”

“I'm very happy – they're seeing results,” School Board Chair Wendy Tage said. It would be wonderful, she added, to adopt some of Bridger's reforms on a larger scale.

Over most of its 20-year history, the Bridger program was located at Willson School and served 70 to 100 students. A few years ago it was moved to its current home in the C-wing of Bozeman High, and now more students are taking at least one class at Bridger. More Bridger students are participating in activities like the football team, wrestling and Worthy Student scholarships.

Last year Bridger served 229 students. Some 59 students dropped out, but most left to get their GED diploma equivalent or transferred. Only 4 percent were true dropouts, Ruyle said.

“We're grabbing kids and we're keeping them in school,” he said.

This fall the school has 129 students, including 33 who take only one class.

The majority of Bridger students aren't lifelong Bozeman kids, he said. Students have moved here from places like Oregon, Idaho and elsewhere. Some move with their families, and some live in group homes.

Old Bridger traditions, like making a Thanksgiving dinner, are being maintained, Ruyle said. Teaching coach Perri Sherrill said Bridger students wanted to do more service in the community, like donating food to local shelters and reading to kindergartners.

One change this year is that Dean Gary Corneer, known for bringing his dog Gunny to school, is now Bridger's dean.

Bridger student Amira Mortenson, a senior, said she thinks the performance-based style of education “is really going to benefit the majority of kids.”

Sam Brooks-Smith, also a senior, said she likes Bridger's new computer program that lets students see online which skills they've already mastered and which they need to tackle next. Asked if Bridger still feels like a family to students, Brooks-Smith said Bridger has grown much larger and it's no longer entirely separate, “but it's more tight-knit in each grade.”

Bridger students “don't exclude people,” said senior Brittany Autry. “It's very inclusive.”

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

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