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Students concerned about alternative high school program

Published On: Oct 16 2013 09:19:44 PM MDT   Updated On: Oct 16 2013 11:03:15 PM MDT
BOZEMAN, Mont. -

Some students in the Bridger Alternative Program at Bozeman High School tell us classes are growing too large and they're not getting the attention they need.

According to the website, the Bridger Alternative Program curriculum is based on the personal mastery, performance-based model where all students are held to proficiency on rigorous standards and progress through the curriculum at their own pace.
Several years ago, the Bridger Alternative Program moved from the Willson School to the Bozeman High School campus. Since then, some students tell us they've seen an increase in their class sizes.

Gwen Lawhon started at Bozeman High School as a freshman. She tells us it was hard to stay on track -- that is, until she started the Bridger Alternative Program.

"I went to Bridger my sophomore year and boom! I felt so much better being able to talk to the teachers and have one on one time and tell the teachers about any problems I'm having," explains Lawhon.

Yet, she says an influx of students has led some students to feel a little crowded.

"This year, it's like I have to struggle just to find a teacher to help me with even one little thing and they have to go off and help someone else," says Bridger Alternative student Brianna Mulholland.

It's not just the class sizes that have students concerned. They tell us the program has lost its sense of community and worry some students are given the option of leaving school to complete their GED.

"Mr. Ruyle and them told some students that it was the better option for them to drop out and get their GED which defeats the purpose of Bridger," Bridger Alternative student Cornelius "Clay" Tomascheskii tells us.

Tomascheskii says that's because the program is standard based and students work at their own pace, allowing them to oftentimes work more quickly than they could in a traditional classroom.

Students like Lawhon and Mulholland tell us they think of the program as a family, a family that's supposed to support each other.

"I'm trying really hard to get all my credits done and I'm hoping that I can be a junior next year but, if I am, I don't have enough credits, it just scares me that they're going to tell me the same thing and I don't want them to tell me the same thing...It would crush me," says Mulholland.

We sat down with Bridger Alternative Program Director Mike Ruyle to find out more. He tells us a lot of students are interested in their unique teaching model and want to be a part of the program.  

"Do you feel like students are still getting the one-on-one, individual attention that they need?" We asked.

"I think they're definitely getting the attention they need. It might not always be one to one." Ruyle answered.

Ruyle explains in the personal mastery model, students may work in groups of three or four at one time and sometimes work together. Teachers can then move from group to group.

"If it's not purely teacher attention, there's collaboration with their colleagues and with other students," says Ruyle.

Ruyle says they have 140 staff members and those teachers teach throughout the building. He says fiscally, it's not a viable option for the Bridger Alternative Program to have its own teachers and explains the program still has smaller class sizes than Bozeman High School.

When it comes to encouraging students to get their GED, Ruyle tells us if a student is struggling with attendance or other issues, he likes to bring them into his office and discuss all options.

"In terms of encouraging students to take the GED, I will encourage students to take the GED if that's appropriate for them at the time," says Ruyle.

Ruyle explains each student's case is different and tells me no one on the staff encourages students to drop out and take the GED arbitrarily.

We called the Office of Public Instruction to check on the maximum class sizes for an alternative high school program and found it's the same for a high school -- 30 students. Most of the students we spoke to say there are about 20 students in most of their classes.

We also asked them whether getting a GED counted towards high school graduation numbers. They tell us GED technically means a student has dropped out.

Ruyle says it's difficult because those who get a GED are still pursuing their education goals and says he doesn't believe it should be considered a dropout.