It seems a small miracle that Abreia Reighard is graduating today
from the Bridger Alternative Program at Bozeman High School.
Reighard came to Bozeman as a 15-year-old, kicked out of Butte High and four months pregnant.
Thanks to her own hard work and determination and the supportive Bridger teachers, she was able to raise her daughter Zuhraya, hold down jobs at local plumbing and photography businesses, and complete high school, while fighting cervical cancer, now in remission. Today she will be one of Bridger’s graduation speakers.
“I really didn’t think I would graduate, because of all the stress and trauma,” Reighard, 17, said Friday. “Somehow I pulled it off because I was in Bridger. I’m really, like, proud of myself. I’m really grateful how things worked out.”
This is the 19th year for the Bridger Alternative Program, which was created to help teenage moms and teens at risk of dropping out to succeed and graduate.
Bridger has 32 graduates, and about 21 are expected to walk during today’s noon graduation ceremony at Willson Auditorium. Students have the option of attending Bridger’s ceremony, the larger Bozeman High ceremony on Sunday, or both.
Mike Ruyle, assistant principal in charge of Bridger, says the program is “vibrant” and “thriving,” despite undergoing major changes. Two years ago, it was forced to make a controversial move from its longtime home at Willson School to the southeast wing of Bozeman High as a budget-cutting measure. Last year, only 13 students graduated.
This school year, Bridger adopted a completely new “performance-based” education program. Instead of earning credits by sitting in class 180 days a year and scraping by with a C or D, Bridger students now must earn credit by showing proficiency in the skills and knowledge standards required for each class.
Students can work at their own pace but have to perform at an A or B level. If their work isn’t up to snuff, they get an “incomplete” and have to keep at it.
It’s been a tough year in many ways, Ruyle said, because the program was new for both students and teachers. Halfway through the school year, 85 percent of the students had “incompletes.” Kids got discouraged. Ruyle said he got phone calls from upset parents, saying, “What do you mean, if he gets a C it’s not good enough?”
But then around February, he said, “it clicked for kids, and they started to rocket through.” One girl finished two years of math in one year. Four students finished early.
“I think we’ve had phenomenal results in engagement and student achievement,” Ruyle said. “It’s a great system and we’re only going to get better.”
This year’s graduates are “truly trailblazers,” Ruyle said. “I’ve never been prouder of kids.”
Bridger taught at least one class to more than 150 students this year. “We’re serving more kids, at a higher level,” Ruyle said.
Today’s second graduation speaker is Lyn Americanhorse Jr., 18, who came to Bridger at age 15 from the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. There he used to skip class to smoke or drink, and he got in trouble with the law for assault. Coming from a community of 1,000 people to much larger Bozeman was a rough transition.
At Bridger, Americanhorse said he found teachers and counselors who believed in him and bonded with Bridger students.
“We’re all one big family,” he said.
In his sophomore year, he was doing math at a fifth-grade level and English at fourth-grade, he said. “At my lowest, I never thought I would graduate from high school.”
Bridger staff visited the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in February, and Americanhorse came to speak to educators there about the performance-based system. Without it, he said, “I wouldn’t have graduated.” People in the audience had tears in their eyes, Ruyle said. Now the reservation school is looking into adopting the system.
Two more young mothers graduating today are Santina Morrison and Rose Nott, both 18.
“I failed a lot of classes my freshman year,” Morrison said, because she was hanging out with the wrong crowd and skipping school. Thanks to Bridger, she was able to catch up on missed schooling, have her baby, Ava, now 3 months old, and still graduate on time. One English teacher, Perri Sherrill, even came to her home to help.
When she found out she was pregnant with Ava, Morrison said, “I wanted to go to college, to give her a better life. … She’s a really big motivator for me.”
Now she plans to move to Denver, attend community college and study to become a nurse.
“I just hope we can continue this program,” Morrison said of Bridger, “to help kids pursue their dreams.”
Nott, mother of 13-month-old son Willow, said she moved here from Billings and was just going to drop out. But Bridger teachers worked with her and helped her graduate. She now plans to attend the Gallatin College at Montana State University.
The performance-based system is better, because you can choose topics you want to study, Nott said, but it’s also harder. “You have to put more effort into it. I think it’s a cool system.”
Having a high school diploma will be good when her son is in high school, Nott said. “It’s a good role model for him to stay in school.”
Jan Benham, an English teacher at Bridger since 1993, said the new performance-based program is successful. “We’re still at the dinosaur stage,” she said. “It’s really educationally good, really sound.”
One of the major changes is that Bridger is no longer an island unto itself, an isolated community. Because of budget cuts, it no longer has its own full-time administrator, secretary, counselor or teachers. Bridger teachers also teach regular Bozeman High classes.
“People have tried hard in difficult times to keep it going, to keep the spirit and keep serving kids,” Benham said. “I definitely think it serves kids.”
Gail Schontzler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 582-2633.