Bridge Year program poised for growth

Bridge Year student Taylor Smith gives a tour of the United Technologies Center in Bangor.
Bridge Year student Taylor Smith gives a tour of the United Technologies Center in Bangor. Smith is enrolled in the business management program at UTC and hopes to become a nurse.

In the spring of 2014, 14 Hermon High School students will graduate with a high school diploma, a year’s worth of college credits and the incentive to continue their education thanks to Hermon’s Bridge Year program, launched during the 2012-13 school year. Now the program’s steering committee is seeking funding to replicate this progressive program all over the state—and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen recently announced to committee members and area legislators Gov. Paul R. LePage’s plan to do just that by including money for Bridge Year in his proposed budget.

Birth of Bridge Year

The Bridge Year program is a collaborative effort involving the faculty and teamwork of Hermon High School; the United Technologies Center, a career and technical education (CTE) school in Bangor; Eastern Maine Community College; and the University of Maine.

The Bridge Year committee, made up of faculty from all four institutions, meets biweekly to discuss the progress and future of the program. “We put all our separate agendas aside and focused on what’s best for the next generation,” said Greg Miller, committee member and coordinator of Bridge Year.

“When the committee came together, the only rule that I recall was that you could not say ‘no.’ You could only say ‘why?’ or ‘how?’” said Patty Duran, superintendent of schools for Hermon. This determined attitude enabled the committee to kick-off Bridge Year in a two-year time frame.

Saving time and money

Students who applied to and were accepted to the Bridge Year program will earn 29.5 credits—equivalent to about a year of college—over the course of their junior and senior years of high school. Their individual programs of study range from business management to building construction, and their future goals are just as diverse. After graduation, these students have the opportunity to enroll in Eastern Maine Community College and graduate with an associate’s degree in applied science within a year – saving them the time and money that is normally required.

Currently, Bridge Year students pay $20 per credit hour, offering a significant savings on college courses. Next year, the cost will increase to $35 per credit hour to reflect the cost of EMCC and UMaine.

Students and parents alike recognize the cost benefits of enrolling in Bridge Year. Ryan Roy, father of Chanel Watson, who is studying business management through Bridge Year, attended the program’s recent showcase and described the low cost as “amazing. I’m so glad to pay that bill.”

Bridge Year students also save in other ways—namely the time college students may need for remedial classes or to determine their career pathways. According to Miller, when people stop for a transition period, such as entering college, they often backslide. But with Bridge Year, “there is not a transition,” Miller explained. “[Their education] just flows right along.”

Bridge Year student Morgan Harvey studies public safety and is determined to achieve her future goals as a police officer and a firefighter. After she graduates from Hermon, she intends to finish her associate’s degree at EMCC, earn her paramedic’s license, and attend the University of New Haven’s criminal justice program with a concentration in forensic psychology and a minor in fire science. As a junior in high school, Harvey has everything figured out. And Bridge Year will allow her to achieve her goals in a timelier, less costly, manner.

“I feel like I’m expanding [my college decisions],” Harvey said. “I wasn’t looking at EMCC originally, but this saves so much money, and it’s closer to home.”

Prepared for their futures

Every CTE school in Maine has an advisory committee, made up of representatives from the business community, which meets with CTE instructors twice a year. Near Hermon High School, “Businesses are 100 percent behind this program,” Fred Woodman, director of UTC, reported.

In alignment with the Governor’s ABC plan, these students are set to graduate on the path to work-readiness. “We are training a workforce that there is currently a need for,” Woodman said.

Bridge Year students spend their afternoons at UTC, immersed in courses specific to their chosen field of study. Taking classes at UTC often involves the real-world application of skills through job shadowing and mentorships—and the students aren’t complaining.

“The UTC part of it, coming here, is a great opportunity because of the learning opportunities you’re going to use in the field,” Harvey explained.

Zach Hilts, who studies information technologies at UTC, echoed Harvey’s sentiment. “I like coming here because it’s a little more relaxed, they treat you like an adult, and you have a little more freedom.”

Bridge Year parents are noticing a difference in their children’s interests as well as their maturity. “I just know she’s becoming, step-by-step, more professional,” said Roy, of his daughter. “She’s really thinking about long-term goals, and that’s awesome to see.”

Future of five-year high schools in Maine

Hermon’s Bridge Year program has experienced many successes during its pilot year. At Hermon High School, Bridge Year surely will continue—and Governor LePage and committee members alike hope the program will expand across the state.

Woodman said four other Bangor-area schools are impatiently waiting to launch Bridge Year programs of their own. Further south, Auburn and Waterville area high schools have been talking to nearby CTE programs with the same goal in mind. Schools in Maine are ready for this program—and now the program is ready for them.

“We’ve asked them to wait—we wanted to see how the pilot went,” Woodman said. “But we know it’s the right thing to do.”

To establish a Bridge Year program, the first step is forming an agreement among a high school, CTE school, and a Maine college or university. In such a rural state, the beauty of this program, according to Miller, is its portability. Because students split classes between their high school and the local CTE site, the third party—the college—can be nominally involved and located anywhere in the state. Essentially, a Bridge Year program only needs a college to sign-on and agree to accept the credits, pending the curricula—meaning areas as rural as Washington County and Greenville could sustain this program.

“The magic thing to keep is the collaboration piece,” Miller said. “If anyone starts building silos, [it won’t work]….This has to go with everyone holding hands.”

Woodman assures principals that the committee is eager to help imitate this program anywhere in Maine. What’s driving this decision? Members have seen firsthand how well this program works.

For schools hoping to introduce Bridge Year in their districts, Dwight Littlefield, Maine DOE Career and Technical Education consultant, says you have to be willing to think outside the box. When Littlefield initially met with teachers about this program, he said, “Here’s your opportunity. Here’s what kids need. You have to really challenge yourself and the institutions have to challenge themselves to think differently and step outside of everyone’s comfort zone.”

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