Never was graduation sweeter
When a graduation ceremony features just five students, one would be inclined to say, “school must be a failure.” On the contrary, Bridges Academy in Bakersfield held its winter high school commencement on Jan. 26, and the five student graduates, teachers, staff, family and friends all agreed it was a total success and a day to remember.
Understanding why requires some history. Bridges was founded in 2008 by the Kern County Probation Department with a grant from the California Division of Juvenile Justice in collaboration with the Kern County Superintendent of Schools (KCSOS) for education and Frederick Rowe & Associates for mental health. It serves an average of 32 students a semester. But the average student is between the ages of 16.5 and 18 years of age, is on criminal probation and faces the prospect of reaching adulthood (age 18) without ever graduating from high school.
A perfect example of how desperate students are if they arrive at this stage in their lives was articulated by graduate Darrell Duke following the ceremony.
“To keep it real, it was either death or jail for me,” Duke said. “I could’ve been locked up right now instead of having this conversation, if I didn’t have Bridges. I’ve seen too many people go through the same stuff I’m going through, fail and give up. So, I told myself, ‘I’m not going to give up.’ I want to go on to college and get my degree.”
Instead of giving up, Duke and the other graduates – Ramon Garcia, Javier Guido, Shaquail Kindred and Michael Phillips voluntarily attended Bridges as part of their probation. What they got out of it wasn’t easily accomplished. Punishment for failing to follow the rules included detention or community service. But, rewards were one-on-one support from teachers in studying to finish their high school course or GED equivalency requirements, job skills training and searches, help in preparing for college courses and tests, resume writing, and more. Even the question of motivation to be there every day is part of the process. Probation provides a van to pick up and take home students who cannot otherwise find transportation.
“Kids don’t fail our program,” said Susan Lerude, juvenile probation programs director. “They may disrupt it. They may be difficult, but we continue to work with them, work on their confidence, and nine out of 10 times they come through, and we all celebrate their graduation.”
Carl Stice, KCSOS principal for Bakersfield area court schools, said the environment makes this “last chance” education work. “It is a structured environment where they have to be accountable for attendance and how they are progressing in school,” Stice said. “What they begin to realize is the value of having structure allows them to meet goals they thought they never could.”
Shaquail Kindred was the graduation speaker and said she certainly realized some of those goals. She will go on to Bakersfield College and from there plans to transfer to San Diego State University to pursue a career in nursing.
“I was struggling with being motivated — in life, going to school, in wanting to go to school, in furthering my education,” Kindred said. “Bridges has prepared me for the future and how to live beyond probation. Looking towards the future, we have a lot to learn — mistakes to learn from and work experiences and not to give up on ourselves.”
Featured speaker for the graduation was Kern County Superintendent of Schools Christine Lizardi Frazier. She told the students of her own parents, who overcame language barriers and never finishing high school to succeed and make sure their children did, as well.
“One thing that was very, very important to them was that we all graduate from high school — that it was absolutely going to happen,” Frazier said. “For us to be successful, we had to have that first step. The five of you have accomplished that, and the number one person who got you there was you. You took the challenge, and I congratulate you.”