Adrianne Nesmith, 12, loves reading and art, especially drawing jazz posters. So she’s eager to get back to the after-school program where she enjoyed those experiences.
“I like it, especially the art classes,” Adrianne says about The Bridge of Northeast Florida, where she goes after school to do homework, get help with math and join art classes. “If I need the teacher they are there to help me. The meals are good, too.”
Armani Turner, another 12-year-old art lover, says she appreciates a teacher who helped her with math and social connections last year.
“When I first started here she made me feel welcome and introduced me to other students,” Armani says.
Adrianne and Armani are just two of 3,500 students who benefit each year from The Bridge of Northeast Florida. Based at 1824 N. Pearl St. in the Springfield area, the non-profit also has eight satellite sites across Jacksonville that offer academic, social and health programs for children ages 5 through 18.
The Bridge opened its doors more than 30 years ago to provide a community of support to address teen pregnancy. Today, The Bridge has expanded its programs to children in need across the region, taking a “holistic” approach to improve students’ school performance, graduation rates, behavior and school attendance.
While they may not know it, many of those students are about to make a transformation. Sometimes they make a complete transformation, like one ninth-grader who learned about compassion in a hospital trauma unit.
Initially, the student never considered entering the medical profession, much less the emergency room, says Shariffa Spicer, CEO of The Bridge. But with lots of urging from teachers, who saw something in him that he didn’t see in himself, the young man reluctantly agreed to go.
Shortly after he arrived at the trauma center, medics brought in a 7-year-old boy who had survived a gruesome car accident that killed both of his grandparents. The teen stood beside the child, holding his hands for hours until his family arrived.
“It changed his life forever,” Spicer says. “It’s amazing to hear the stories that the kids go through. It’s just about pushing kids outside their comfort zone and the mentoring piece of it. These opportunities allow them to see if this is something they really want to do.”
Sometimes the impact The Bridge has on families is equally meaningful, but not as dramatic.
Natasha Gillis recently registered her 14-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter in the after-school program due to last year’s successes. With the aid of tutoring, her son’s reading improved two grade levels, which meant he did better in all his classes, because he could read directions, Gillis says. With group counseling, her daughter learned how to get along with her peers and family members.
But that’s not all. The Bridge bus picks up her children from their day school, staff checks in with teachers to see if they need tutoring, and volunteers gave her children backpacks filled with school supplies.
Here’s a list of programs offered at The Bridge:
Bridge Urban Springfield Program: An after-school program with homework, tutoring, mentoring and job skills, sports, arts, music, and dance instruction.
Bridge Scholarships Program: For students in need who have excelled academically.
Bridge Community Garden: A program that emphasizes caring for plants, fitness and nutrition.
Bridge to Success: Academic program for students who have fallen at least two years behind so they can get back on track and graduate.
Alternative to Out-of-School Suspension: A voluntary program for students on school suspension that keeps them in a daily classroom and out of trouble.
Tipping the Scale Mentoring Program: A hospital-based partnership with Baptist Health with year-round employee mentors and paid internships for rising ninth-graders.
Healthy Families: Home visitation and case management for families who need resources to help prevent child abuse.
Straight Talk: Age appropriate sexual health classes and rap sessions for students ages 10 through 18.
Breaking the Cycle: Social, academic and health services for students whose parents are or have been incarcerated.
“It’s a safe environment with willing staff and good academics,” Gillis says. “They reach out to families, too. That helps a lot.”
The non-profit can help families like the Gillis’ due to private foundation grants, private donations and government partnerships with the Jacksonville Children’s Commission and Duval County Public Schools. As a result, families pay $10 a year for each child in the after-school program.
Spicer attributes The Bridge’s success to its high expectations. Employees and volunteers model behavior, often providing new models for respect.
“Pull up your pants and tighten your belts,” Spicer says. “That’s not acceptable.”
In a typical day, the students come in after school, get a snack, do homework, take a break, then participate in art, dance, or music or work on computers. Dinner is available at 6 p.m. if the students need it.
Duval County School Superintendent Nicolai Vitti supports The Bridge to Success project – an intense academic program to help students who have fallen at least two years behind get back on track and graduate from high school.
The school system partnered with The Bridge to expand the program to five middle schools and eight high schools. Students work with a separate set of teachers and administrators at those locations.
As a result, 78 students graduated from high school this past May who otherwise would not have done so, Spicer says. Another 50 students who attend the main campus in Springfield are on target to graduate this school year, she says.
The Alternative to Out-of-School Suspension program, better known as Atoss, is also popular with the school system and the community. A voluntary alternative for students on school suspension, it keeps them in an active learning environment and out of trouble. Among other requirements, those students must attend counseling for conflict resolution, and skills and behavior modification.
Sometimes the same students who fought each other in school – whose actions led to their being suspended – end up in the same counseling sessions, Spicer says.
“In some cases they have become friends,” she says, chuckling about how youth – with proper coaching – can admit their reasons for fighting were pretty silly.
For more information about The Bridge, visit bridgejax.com or call 904.354.7799.