MADRAS — Inside an old high school building on SW Fourth Street in Madras, Bridges Career and Technical High School Principal Brian Crook is patting a student on the back and greeting other students by name.

In return, students give him a hello, thumbs up or head nod, and get back to work. Many of them are on computers taking online classes. Others are in small classes with teachers.

“I say these kids have the ‘R’ gene,” Crook said. “The resilient gene.”

Unlike some alternative high schools, students at Bridges Career and Technical High School in Madras are there by choice and not because of disciplinary action. An option for sophomores through seniors in the Jefferson County School District, Bridges helps students who have fallen behind on classes at Madras High School and aren’t on track to graduate.

Madras High co-principals Mark Neffendorf and H.D. Weddel, who helped start Bridges, talk to kids they think might benefit from a transfer to the school. Crook also serves as a vice principal at Madras High, splitting his time between the schools.

“Only the kids who want to go there, go there, so the atmosphere of what would traditionally be called an alternative school is really good,” Neffendorf said.

Neffendorf and Weddel aren’t keen on using the term “alternative school” to describe Bridges.

“We want them to graduate; they needed another option, and it’s going well because kids are choosing to go there; we’re not placing them there,” Neffendorf said.

There are three divisions of the school. At the location on SW Fourth Street, there are Bridges students getting direct instruction and some online classes and, separately, students taking all online classes in what’s called the annex. While the annex existed before, the Bridges model is new. There is also a campus in Warm Springs that’s all online.

Gabby Nambo, 17 and a senior, stepped out of her English class where students were reading “The Hobbit” to talk about Bridges.

As a sophomore at Madras High, Gabby had dropped out and re-enrolled more than once because of personal struggles, including depression and drug use. By her sophomore year, she was a full year behind.

One Madras High staffer told her there was nothing left they could do for her.

“Mr. Weddel came in saying, ‘no, we don’t give up on our students,’” Gabby said.

Gabby, who started at Bridges last school year, is now a senior and on track to graduate.

The school culture is different than Madras High, Gabby said. The small school doesn’t have activities like pep rallies, but that’s OK by her.

“Every student’s goal here is just to graduate,” Gabby said.

Gabby also attends Madras High in the afternoons for elective classes: She’s a teacher’s aide in the office and for the band director, and she’s in choir.

“This school is really more understanding and personal,” Gabby said of Bridges, adding one person in particular, Rosalynn Jaeger, has been hugely supportive. Jaeger is a teacher on special assignment, working half time in the district’s main office and half-time as an administrator at Bridges with Crook.

“I love Ms. Jaeger; she was my principal in elementary school,” Gabby said. “She puts her heart and soul into teaching.”

Because Jaeger saw Gabby grow up, she’s more understanding of who she is and where she’s been, Gabby said.

Because Bridges is an alternative school, some students and parents think its students are there as a disciplinary measure, Gabby said. But nothing could be further from the truth.

For her, the school has been a life changer. When she graduates in June, she’ll be in the Madras High ceremony with the people she grew up with.

“Without this school, I would probably be a dropout,” Gabby said.

Gabby’s also applying to Central Oregon Community College and Oregon State University-Cascades because she’d ultimately like to earn her master’s in teaching, then work in Madras schools.

“I just have a heart for people and kids going through things kids shouldn’t have to go through,” Gabby said. “I want to give them a chance.”

Crook, the Bridges principal, is in his 31st year in education, but his first with Jefferson County School District. Most recently, Crook worked for Bend-La Pine Schools, and switching to Jefferson County has been an adjustment. About 70 percent of the students at Bridges are Native American, and the family structure for students at Bridges can be different: aunts, uncles, grandparents or cousins may be the primary caretakers instead of parents.

The school meets with students and members of their families who will support them in their education. Crook or Jessica Swagger, a teacher and counselor at Bridges, hold the orientations with families, which include goal setting for students. Goal setting also continues throughout the school year, and students meet up with educational assistants who help them break down what they need to accomplish week by week to graduate on time.

Some of the students at Bridges are older than the typical high school student, like Feydy Diaz, a 20-year-old senior who started at Bridges last school year.

But her progress at Bridges slowed dramatically when her mom became pregnant and found it difficult to work her job in the fields, Feydy said.

“You have to be leaning down all day and in the hot sun, and I didn’t want her to lose my baby brother,” Feydy said.

Feydy took a job at Dollar Tree, working full time after school, from about 3-10 p.m. each day, to help support her mom and middle school-age sister. Her mom didn’t want her to do it, but Feydy felt the need to help her family.

Feydy was absent from Bridges often last year, so she took more online classes to make up for it. She ended up cramming the online classwork on the weekends.

“It was a lot,” Feydy said.

Things settled down before this school year, though. Her mom had a healthy baby boy, now 18 months, and Feydy and her mom are working in a family restaurant in Metolius. Feydy also only works weekends now. She’s hoping to graduate with honors and is on track to do so.

“That’s my goal,” Feydy said of graduating.

Feydy, too, feels especially supported at Bridges, comparing the school atmosphere to a family. She wants to attend Central Oregon Community College, then a university in Portland, to become either a nurse or medical assistant. Like Gabby, she wants to give back to the community by getting a job in Madras.

Even though many students attending Bridges are trying to overcome adversity, they have to show progress to stay in the program. But the model works because students have extra support to do that, according to Neffendorf, at Madras High.

Through online classes, students can work at their own pace to catch up on credits and they can choose to focus on one class at a time, for example, working on coursework for two classes in a month and completing those instead of taking six different classes.

So are the online classes equal to what students learn in the classrooms at Madras High?

To that, Neffendorf offers this comparison: “My son just finished his college degree, and he did it online.”

“Some kids actually learn better online,” Neffendorf said.

— Reporter: 541-383-0325, kfisicaro@bendbulletin.com

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