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'Successes are pretty cool to see:' New Bridge Academy already changing lives in central Illinois

Trisha speaks
Ryan Denham
Trisha Malott is director of the startup Bridge Academy program through the Regional Office of Education for adolescents with mental health challenges.

Those involved in the Central Illinois Bridge Academy say the new program for adolescents with mental health concerns is going very well. The academy, which opened Sept. 12 in space shared with MarcFirst just off Shepard Park in Normal, has 16 junior high and high school students.

Some of them are at risk for hospitalization, or have returned from hospitalization. All have been referred to the academy as students who may struggle in a traditional school setting, kids who may become overwhelmed by anxiety or panic either by the number of students passing in a hallway, or the volume that can occur in a class with 20 to 30 kids.

Bridge Academy director Trisha Malott said the students spend their days in classes. Much of the day is structured similarly to schedules in regular schools so the students can eventually transition back.

"But they're also checking in with case managers. They have access to therapy as well as the use of a sensory room when they feel overwhelmed or overstimulated. They can take a break for a moment to find a sense of regulation to be able to return to class," said Malott.

Attendance for the children has improved from about 30% last year in public schools to an average of 69% now, said Malott.

“We have so many who come every single day, even when it's been a challenge. And those successes are pretty cool to see,” she said, adding every student has improved their attendance by a significant margin.

"We have some students that it's easy to see already what a different environment has done for them and how with continued supports and help they will be able to overcome a lot of their self-doubt, a lot of their struggles that brought them here in the first place," said Malott.

The latitude for the adolescents to take a break in a sensory room as their health needs dictate can disrupt the flow of learning as kids cycle in and out of an instructional session. But Malott said that is not a prohibitive problem.

“Almost every day, I probably say to at least one staff person or more that flexibility is the name of the game around here. We are all pretty adept at being able to pivot,” said Malott. “Almost all of our students are really great at picking up where they left off. They use their homeroom time for making up work if they missed something.”

Some of the kids were fragile enough before they came to Bridge Academy that they received instruction at home. That didn't necessarily push them or encourage them to interact with peers to navigate a school setting.

“The reality is our fears, anxieties, worries don't get better by avoidance. They actually tend to get bigger. Part of the way to move through all of that is to literally move through all of it. You have to do the things that you're scared of in order to find improvement,” said Malott.

But those who have been hospitalized for anxiety or depression would potentially be likely to have multiple hospitalizations without additional intervention, Malott said. Regular school districts are required to offer learning plans that take into account special circumstances a student may have.

“And our schools have done a great job of trying to support them. But our schools also have so many students to meet the needs of. And if you have one student who needs a lot of extra (help) during the day, that makes it hard to account for the other hundreds or thousands of students potentially in the school,” said Malott.

The Bridge Academy program takes junior high and high school students from four counties: McLean, Dewitt, Logan, and Livingston. Enrollment will cap at 40, said Malott, but the practical limit now, she said is 36 because of staff levels and a desire to keep class size at 10-12 students per class. Much depends on the individual children involved, their ages, needs, and dynamics with other students, she said.

Even with just 16 students now, Malott said she expects Bridge Academy to fill up and need to exceed capacity.

“We have seen slower referral rates by larger districts. I think some of that is based on their internal processes are and what some of their supports are. We have seen more referrals from some of our rural communities, where community resources are a little bit lower,” said Malott.

She anticipates referrals will pick up as districts revisit plans for students who have special circumstances, typically after the first quarter. Holiday stresses also could increase numbers.

The Bridge Academy grant-funded budget is $1 million a year for the first two years. That comes from a request for proposal by McLean County government as part of the inter-governmental agreement with the Town of Normal and the City of Bloomington on mental health and public safety funding. The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) also has kicked in a Community Partnership Grant. The United Way of McLean County is another financial supporter.

Though the program remains in its infancy, those groups eventually will want transparency, accountability, and performance assessments on those grants.

Malott said she believes the bang for the buck analysis justifies Bridge Academy.

“I think it is worth it. It is intended to shift the trajectory of adolescent’s lives. It is to help them reset the course they're on, to rebuild their confidence to become functional people in society and to overcome their challenges and to be able to do so with success,” she said.

A simple ratio of $1 million to help a few dozen children per year is a false comparison for her.

"It's not just about looking at what is the impact on this one student at this one moment in time, but what is the impact on this student over the course of the student's life, and what would that look like without additional support and help” that then adds to societal value overall long term, said Malott.

She cautioned costs for the first two years are conservative estimates used to write the grant proposals through the Regional Office of Education and could end up being lower. Other revenue sources may emerge as well.

There's some movement at the national level to allow schools to bill through Medicaid for some services for which they cannot now recoup the cost. Malott said that would have a significant effect on costs, not only for Bridge Academy but for regular school districts.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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