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Bridges to Belmont meets obstacles in first year

Ja’shavre’l Miller and her best friend were so excited to be selected for the Bridges to Belmont program that they did cartwheels down the hallways of Stratford High School last spring.

Now a year later, Miller is still thankful for the full-scholarship initiative that pays for her tuition and board here at Belmont.

“I feel like we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to have this without the program,” she said.

Since the initial announcement and signing of the first class last March, Miller along with 24 of the original 26 Bridges to Belmont participants have weathered the emotional highs and lows and have overcome the struggles encountered in their first year at college.

Bridges to Belmont is a partnership between Metro Nashville public schools and Belmont University that provides 26 full scholarships to inner-city students who might not have the opportunity to attend the university otherwise.

“I think the schools, from the students to the faculties, are excited about the opportunity that is given to some of their children,” said Dr. Jesse Register, the director of Metro schools. “And, I think it’s very positive for the community. It really shows that Belmont is trying to make a real strong connection to the Nashville and Metropolitan community.”

The program began with Maplewood and Stratford high schools for the the first year, with Whites Creek and Pearl Cohn high schools joining the list for the second year. All the participating public schools have a high percentage of students receiving free-or-reduced lunches, which is used as an indicator of low economic status, said Dr. Jesse Register, the director of Metro schools.

While many were excited for the program, others raised concerns that students would be unable to cope with the academic rigor of Belmont based on the academic performance of the high schools they came from.

Maplewood, Stratford, Whites Creek and Pearl Cohn are all lower achieving schools compared to schools like Overton or Hillwood high schools that have high academic profiles.

A good portion of the Bridges’ students took Advanced Placement courses in high school, however, not all took the test for college credit, and those who did, did not earn a four, the score needed to get out of general education courses at Belmont.

Also, the group collectively had an average ACT composite score of 18.2, which is 8.2 points lower than the Belmont median of 26.4.

While their scores were low for Belmont, they were not for the schools they came from.

Pearl Cohn, had the lowest average ACT composite score of 15.0 while Whites Creek had the  highest of the four with 15.6. The average ACT composite score at Maplewood High was 15.4 and Stratford High school averaged 15.3. All scores were for the 2012 school year, according to the state Department of Education.

Provost Thomas Burns said the 8.2 ACT gap between the average Belmont incoming freshman in 2013 and the Bridges to Belmont students was not the sole indicator of potential success at Belmont.

“There is a significant disparity in those scores but we weren’t convinced that there was a significant disparity in academic proficiency,” said Burns.

The ACT or the SAT test “is sometimes influenced by the socioeconomic status stratification that the students come from,” whether that be through cultural, ethnic or racial bias, said Burns. “So, what we are saying is, that while their ACT or SAT score may not be as high as the average Belmont student, there are other indicators of academic proficiency or success.”

However, Miller, who took several AP courses at Stratford High, said she was still not prepared to attend Belmont.

“Honestly, I can tell you when we got here we weren’t prepared,” she said. “Stratford didn’t prepare us for the classes here. Maplewood didn’t prepare us for the classes here.”

Belmont knew there would be a learning curve for the Bridges students, so it created a summer program to help orient students to the culture and campus of Belmont, as well as to the academic rigors.

Or at least that was the goal.

“I think the best way to put it is the program started out in a way that was maybe a bit too programed and maybe a bit too ambitious in what it was trying to accomplish,” said history professor Dr. Peter Kuryla, who taught a course in the summer program. “It really put the Bridges’ students under heavy, rigorous schedule that was, I think, unrealistic.”

Each day, students had scheduled events from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., with required study periods at the end of the day.

It was so demanding that Miller, who serves as the president of the Bridges to Belmont Student Council, pushed for a shortened day with courses finished by 5 p.m., which the administration eventually agreed to.

“It was hard for us to keep going because we were tired,” she said. “Just because we studied at 11 didn’t mean we finished homework at 11. Sometimes we would be up until 1 or 2 a.m. and you had to be up at 6 in the morning, so them cutting that schedule really helped.”

Kuryla, who was initially going to teach a global studies course, said he had to adjust his class “on the fly” to better accommodate the skills and needs of the students. In the end, his course became a college survival course, with supplemental reading on global issues.

“I think once we got over the discomfort, intimidation period, we got along pretty well. I ended up really enjoying them,” he said.

Additional problems came at the end of the first semester when administrative oversight left both Bridges students and Belmont faculty frustrated.

A failure in communication between the Bridges’ staff and faculty arose as to who was in the program and what resources were available for both students and professors. Some students earned low grades in the courses and administrators told the professors not to post grades for those students until it could learn what happened in the classrooms. The students’ grades were eventually posted significantly later than the grades for the rest of the freshman class after faculty complained.

“We didn’t change any grades; they got the grades that they earned in those classes but the communication process was a little bumpy,” said Burns. “I think we got that sorted out and it will never happen again.”

Now heading into the second year of the program, Dr. Beverly Schneller, the associate provost for academic affairs, hopes that the experience of the first year, plus additional time to plan, will help not only alleviate the so-called bumps the program has seen this year, but will help create a model program in the future.

“Last year the mantra was ‘build it because they are coming and see how it works,’” said Schneller. “Then we get to renovate the stadium this year.”

Part of those renovations include a revamped summer program that includes extended courses tied to what the Bridges’ students will take in the fall, credit for those summer courses and the introduction of faculty liaisons in majors of interest for the program participates.

Even with all the planning, that doesn’t mean the path will smooth out.

“It’s going to be bumpy. There are going to be some areas that we are not going to be satisfied with where the program is going. I think there is going to be some very reasonable criticisms but we have to persist,” said Kuryla. “And we have to continue to mold and reshape things as we move forward but it is absolutely necessary.”

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