© 2024 WGLT
A public service of Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Bridge Academy prepares for year two, opens enrollment to grade 6

An exterior of a brick building with a green awning, also the entrance to Bridge Academy, as signs indicate on the glass doors.
Melissa Ellin
The entrance to Central Illinois Bridge Academy, which shares space with Marcfirst in Normal.

Central Illinois Bridge Academy — a first-of-its-kind school for the area, serving middle school and high school students with mental health concerns — wrapped up its first year in May.

Classes resume for students Aug. 16, and Bridge Academy Director Trisha Malott said the people at Bridge are looking forward to welcoming back some of their students, as well as taking in some new ones.

“Most of these students were struggling with school in some capacity,” said Malott, also the behavioral health coordinator for the Regional Office of Education #17. “Many of them are incredibly bright, but something has shifted along the way for them.”

She said Bridge is meant to help these students “reengage in learning” in whatever form they may require.

For its inaugural year, there were 33 total students enrolled at some point. By the end of the year, 18 students remained. Malott said this is positive. Students tended to leave for good reasons.

“Some of our students transitioned back to their home schools, some chose to become homeschooled, they decided that they wanted to sort of pursue either a GED or a diploma on a different pace than any type of schooling model in person could afford them so that they could also get jobs,” she said. “There were a few that we served really, as a known interim placement.”

She said most of the 18 students who remained at the end of the year are planning to return for the 2023-2024 school year. Additional students will likely trickle in during the first few weeks of classes.

Changes for the upcoming year

This time, 6th grade students will be eligible for enrollment, which could shake up the student population. Previously, Bridge only served 7th through 12th grades.

“The sooner that we can help increase support for some adolescents and youth who are struggling, then the better we set them up for success later in life,” she said.

Additional changes for the upcoming school year include an increased mandatory enrollment length from 60 days to 90 days and a new mental health assessment for youth. Bridge will also start asking about self-harm.

Malott said they did not ask students to report self-harm this year, but there was a decrease in instances of self-harm for the students who chose to report.

Outside of these changes, Malott said much of the work Bridge has done will remain the same.

Staff were well-prepared to deal with the issues students faced and made sure to bond with each other before any classes were in session. Students also seemed to react well to the approach Bridge took to teaching.

Trisha Malott
Charlie Schlenker
WGLT file
Central Illinois Bridge Academy Director Trisha Malott.

“We really celebrated small wins and successes,” Malott said, adding that it helped students to have immediate positive feedback for even small things.

She said this positive reinforcement is particularly helpful where attendance is concerned.

“We had a lot of students who weren't attending school previously and were avoiding, or were going to school but spending so much of their time in the guidance office, and so we really celebrate days that students show up to school,” she said.

There were “ebbs and flows” for attendance this year, Malott said, and the mental health concerns that some of the students have played a role.

“[The] default for many is avoiding what's uncomfortable — a difficult peer dynamic, or feedback on an assignment or a project that didn't go as well as they thought, or not having an interest in the project — may all be reasons to avoid rather than to talk through brainstorming what those solutions are.”

Some attendance issues cropped up for the summer program Bridge ran, with many students leaving for vacations. Some were unable to attend at all due to time constraints.

However, Malott said she felt like the program went well for those who participated.

“We did the summer programming as a way to help students maintain consistency with attendance, to really maintain the relationships both with peers with staff to have an outlet and support if and when they need it, but really for that continued engagement,” she said.

There were also opportunities for high schoolers to help recover credits they had missed out on during the year.

It is unclear how large the student population will be for the upcoming year until requests start coming in for student placement, Malott said. These requests are taken on a rolling basis throughout the year and must come from the school.

Malott said it’s important for parents to notify the school in the event they think their child should go to Bridge.

We depend on your support to keep telling stories like this one. WGLT’s mental health coverage is made possible in part by Report For America and Chestnut Health Systems. Please take a moment to donate now and add your financial support to fully fund this growing coverage area so we can continue to serve the community.

Melissa Ellin is a reporter at WGLT and a Report for America corps member, focused on mental health coverage.