February Issue
January 27, 2015

Helping at risk students bridge the gaps

Author: By Leslie Duncan Fottrell
Source: NYSUT United
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Bridge students and Berkshire TA Vice President Helen Thompson, center, help out at the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York.
Caption: Bridge students and Berkshire TA Vice President Helen Thompson, center, help out at the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York. Photo by Marty Kerins Jr.

Dan Kalbfliesh heads outside on a cold, rainy December Saturday afternoon to touch up a window painting at Columbia-Greene Partnership Academy.

Kalbfliesh, a former teacher who is now the school's principal, turns to a student: "Do you want to help me?"

The setting sun silhouettes the pair as they carefully daub on paint. The window's wintry scene of snowmen, evergreens, snowflakes and the promising words "Food Inside," is backlit from the classroom lights within. It is a radiant welcome to the hundreds of people expected that night for the Hudson Winter Walk, an annual event featuring carolers in Victorian dress, carriage rides and other period-themed fun.

Karen Souza, school psychologist and Berkshire Teachers Association member, is setting up the food table. Students from the Berkshire Farm school have prepared food donated by Hannaford to sell to winter walkers.

A man approaches. "So these are the kids who are in trouble. Developmentally disabled," he says to Souza.

"No, the students here were having difficulty succeeding in the traditional school setting. Here we have smaller class sizes and more supports in place to help," says Souza with firm politeness.

A lot of people are skeptical, Souza says later. "I use any opportunity to talk about our kids. Our kids are just like everyone else, they just maybe have to work a little harder."

The Columbia-Greene Partnership Academy, colloquially known as "The Bridge," is a Special Act school district, one of 10 across the state. The public school districts, created by special acts of the state Legislature, partner with child-care institutions to educate students with special physical, emotional or mental health needs. The students may be in at-risk situations; some live in foster care, in poverty or are homeless.

The Bridge, which opened in Febuary 2014, is a partnership with the Hudson City, Berkshire Union Free and Catskill school districts and currently serves about 55 students from multiple school districts in two programs — an alternative transition program for students who are behind their public school peers, and a day program.

"These are students who were falling through the cracks academically and behaviorally," says Berkshire TA President Mike Smyth, who teaches at Berkshire Farm, The Bridge's sister school in Canaan.

The small student population and flexible scheduling allow educators — all of whom have multiple certifications and most of whom are certified in special education — to individualize curricula and keep students focused and on track.

"Our challenge as teachers is filling in the gaps and motivating the students," says BTA Vice President Helen Thompson, who teaches science at The Bridge. "We use technology and multiple learning modalities."

Hudson Teachers Association President Jack Beyer says The Bridge's smaller class sizes benefit the Hudson City School District's students who attend. "The more personalized setting helps these struggling students," he says.

One hallmark among many at The Bridge is the ongoing commitment to community service. BTA members work collaboratively with administration to involve students in monthly activities to raise awareness and sometimes money to benefit any number of causes, says Kalbfliesh.

Students, he says, realize a sense of accomplishment, and what it means to be a citizen and to give back — building bridges, if you will, between often misunderstood students and their communities.

A month after selling food to hungry winter walkers, 12 students assemble boxes and then fill them with bottled water at the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York.

"We help the hungry. We help the thirsty!" one student says with a smile as she works.

To date, Bridge students have raised money and awareness for several cancer support groups, placed flags on the graves of firefighters for Memorial Day and helped clean up their Hudson community.

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