UMSL program bridges high school to college
Would you be willing to give up your leisurely summertime sleep-ins to enter a program that has sent 100 percent of its participants to college?
Hundreds of teens, from middle school through high school, are doing just that during this heat, showing up at 7:45 a.m. to attend the Bridge Program at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Now in its 26th year, it boasts a perfect record of high school graduation and enrollment in college; last year, 87 seniors from the program graduated with more than $900,000 in scholarship offers.
What’s the secret to solving a stubborn dropout problem that other efforts have tackled with far less success? Natissia Small, an assistant dean at UMSL who has been involved with the program since 2003, said the answer is partly a matter of academics but just as much an emphasis on nurturing a trusting relationship with students and their parents.
“You have to understand who the student is, beyond just what they look like,” Small says. “You have to understand what the student needs and know how to meet those needs.
“You have to have trust. That’s what our parents feel most. You have to have trust that we are doing what is best for their students and trust that we are doing what we say we are doing. You have to be genuine when you are doing a program like that.”
A lot of students and parents must feel that such an approach rings true. From the two dozen or so students who signed up for the Bridge program when it began back in 1986, enrollment has swelled to more than 400 this summer, including those in an offshoot for middle school students now in its fourth year. The summer program and a Saturday session that meets during the school year both have waiting lists.
The students need to have a 2.5 grade point average to get into the program; 97 percent of them are African-American. Small says one big key to how well it has worked is meeting the students where they are and making sure they get that extra boost to keep them going.
“We are taking the students who need a little bit more support and guidance,” she said.
Making a difference
The Bridge program was the brainchild of Marguerite Ross Barnett, who came to UMSL as chancellor in 1986 and worked hard to develop the kind of programs that she thought a public urban campus needed to have.
“The Bridge program was her baby,” Small said.
From the start, its goal was to show students that earning a high school diploma and going on to college were not an impossible dream but an economic and academic necessity.
Today, that means educating not only the students but their families in more than academic subjects. Workshops deal with subjects such as how to apply for scholarships, how to develop good study skills and, for parents, how to realize that seeing their student in a cap and gown is both the end of high school and the beginning of independence.
“When they see their student walk across that stage,” Small said, “parents have to remember that they have to let go and not be a helicopter parent. They remember that that’s part of our Saturday workshop.”
Small herself was the first member of her immediate family to go to college after graduating from high school in Charleston, Mo. After earning a bachelor’s degree at Southeast Missouri State University, she went on to get two master’s degrees from UMSL, all the while recalling the emphasis that both her parents put on education.
She has tried to imbue that attitude into the Bridge program as well, she said, walking a fine line between engendering confidence in the students without easing up on academic demands.
“It has to be nurturing,” she said, “but trust me, our students are held accountable. They have to be accountable for every part of their life. The word failure is not part of the Bridge program. Expectations are one of the biggest priorities we preach to the students and their parents. There is no wavering from that. We don’t let them think for a minute that this is a walk through the flowers for them.
“We encounter students who think they don’t have the ability to do what we expect of them. That’s unfortunate, but it’s because of the world we live in. We have to tell them not to give up. These are lives, and I don’t take them for granted.”
Resumes and RNA
A typical program for the high schoolers in the Bridge program includes academic subjects, like writing and science, but also practical lessons in areas like career and personal development. In a recent class, students were coached on how to do a resume, what their teacher called “a snapshot of what you’ve done.”
Some members of the class stared at all of the areas that needed to be filled in and realized that they didn’t have much to say, so their instructor said if they haven’t been involved in their community or in any activities at school, they may want to start so they won’t end up with a blank sheet of paper.
In another class, the students tackled this question:
"Which strand, DNA, mRNA or tRNA, is the template for protein synthesis. What is the job of each of these and where do they exist?"
One student addressing such questions, academic and practical, was Stephan McIntire, who will be a junior this fall at McCluer North High School. He’s in his second summer at the Bridge program and did the Saturday program as well.
He said the classes have helped him improve his grades as well as his study skills and how he organizes his materials and his time.
“They said to find a place or a habit you have and align it with your studying,” he said. “I’m a physical learner, hands-on. When I do science, I learn best when I do experiments. I have to find a place where I’m in my comfort zone. I like to listen to music when I study.”
He also likes to perform music, either as a tenor in his school’s Chamber Singers or playing the flute, piano or drums. He also likes to write, primarily fantasy and sci-fi stories. If he doesn’t become an engineer or get involved in science, McIntire said, he might want to make music his career.
Whatever he ends up doing, he said that the Bridge program has definitely helped him strengthen habits that will help him get there.
“It’s very, very helpful and useful when it comes to skills, organization and finding out what you’re good at,” McIntire said. He added that it also helps you learn how to surround yourself with people who can be instrumental in your success.
“I’ve realized you have to pick your friends wisely,” he said. “Some friends don’t care about grades as much as you might. Some want to hang out 24/7; others want to study 50/50.”
Lengthening the bridge
Though the Bridge program has been a successful link between high school and college, Sue Schlichter thought the passageway needed to start sooner – in middle school. As executive director of the Express Scripts Foundation, and given the company’s close ties to UMSL -- physical and otherwise -- she thought extending the program to middle school was a natural move.
And choosing Normandy Middle School, right in the back yard of the campus and the new building of the prescription benefits company, made even more sense.
“When we opened this building about five years ago,” Schlichter said, “I was looking at what impact we might be able to have in the neighborhood. We moved here intentionally, to have an impact – not to go out into the far suburbs but to go where we could make a difference.”
With the so-called STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math – playing a key role in the Bridge program’s academics, the fit with Express Scripts was complete, she said.
“The STEM program is really aligned with what we do,” she said, “in terms of innovation and higher levels of education, particularly for minority kids. It makes a tremendous difference in the health of their families. The higher level of education that you have, the healthier you are, so it dovetailed with what we are interested in.”
Getting to students at an earlier age improves the program’s chances at success, Schlichter said.
“If you wait until kids are in high school, if they haven’t had the proper preparation, you are not going to make a difference,” she said. “You could start in pre-school with literacy. There are benchmarks. Kids who haven’t learned to ready by third grade aren’t going to go to college. So this seemed to be an ideal investment for us that could really make a difference.”
And, she added, there are benefits for the company and its workers as well.
“It was important to get our employees engaged with the kids,” Schlichter said. “The middle school is just across the campus from us. It just seemed to be a natural. So we had the kids come and visit Express Scripts and tour our high-volume filler in our lab, using robots. It’s very high-tech.
“We wanted to inspire them. We had people talk to them who looked like them, to let them know this is attainable, that they can do this. We had people talk about career paths, how they felt when they were these kids’ age, and that there is a place for them.”
In the end, Schlichter said, a company whose main business is helping people maintain good health is also vitally interested in being part of a healthy community, and the Bridge program can help reach that goal.
“It would be ideal if all of these Bridge program kids went to college, then came to Express Scripts,” she said. “Think of the impact on the community. That would be great. But it’s also about just creating healthier communities, having more people employed, whether or not it’s in health care or at Express Scripts.
“It’s important to get kids into companies, especially ones that use science and technology, to understand the relevancy of what they are doing in school. But in order to get here, they have to do well academically. I think this program takes kids up to another level of possibilities in their lives.”