City of Bridges High School: Obama’s Unknown Neighbor
By Noah Levitt, Isaiah Trumbull (Sophomores)
To the uninitiated, City of Bridges High School looks nothing like one would expect. To the left of the front door is a kitchen where students cook their meals. To the right is what looks like a normal dining area. It is only after going down the hall when one sees tables and chairs in a large room set up to learn. On both the first and second floor, the layout and floor plan of a home have been repurposed and every inch rethought to make it a place of learning.
Located two doors down from Obama Academy, City of Bridges High School is a private, not-for-profit high school with an enrollment of 41 students. We spoke to Dr. Randy Bartlett, the Executive Director of the organization. As executive director Mr. Bartlett serves as what most would call the principal and the superintendent. He says that he is also the director of development, “I do enrollment and I unclog toilets… I am the executive director of the nonprofit. I also teach, so I wear a lot of different hats” Mr. Bartlett talked to us about what the school is, how it fits into his vision of the community, and what lessons it holds for Obama Academy.
To a public school student, perhaps the most striking thing about the school is the absence of grades. Instead, they use “competencies” which aim to encapsulate skills that students have learned. According to Mr. Bartlett, “it’s not about chasing a grade. It’s about chasing knowledge and skills and understanding, and really building out for yourself a set of experiences that allow you to go from where you are here in high school to where you want to go.” The school also works towards its goal of a more just, equitable, and joyful future by directly preparing students for what they want to do after high school with internships. For one day a week students intern with a group or in a field that they are interested in having a career in. Mr. Bartlett talked about internships as a huge part of City of Bridges, and referenced a student who had interned with a fire company and entered the fire academy. For that student, he is already on the path to his future career. Although many students go on to college, Mr. Bartlett cautioned that that was not the only option, “How do we ensure that regardless of what your path is after college, you are prepared for it? We ensure that by tailoring your high school experience towards whatever that post-secondary plan is.”
Regardless of students’ post-secondary plans, Mr. Bartlett wants students to be engaged in the school. Students sit as voting members on the board of trustees where they make important decisions regarding the school and their learning. “The students as voting members of the board are technically my boss…There’s a lot of student voice and agency in the way the school is run.” A more down-to-earth example of student engagement is the idea of a shared space. “We intentionally don’t have any janitorial staff because this is our space, this is our school, this is our community. So we all pitch in and clean up this school every day and take care of it.” Maybe the biggest decision the school will soon have to make is about its expansion plan. In just three years they have moved enrollment from 9 students to 41. Mr. Bartlett said that right now, the model is to have 60 students, but that they do not want to turn anyone away, “It’s grown so fast, which I think means we’re doing something right. But it also means we have to figure out what happens when we reach that sort of target size.” Through every decision, he said, he will make sure that students have the final say.
Although the City of Bridges has a lot of attributes, Mr. Bartlett acknowledged that the school is not for everyone. Many students may be turned away by the lack of a traditional school environment, the small size, or the lack of grades. Mr. Bartlett responded by saying that, “City of Bridges is a high school that is designed to allow you to take charge of your high school experience and make it what you want. And so the most important criteria [is], is this the place for you to be successful? Are you motivated to take charge of your high school experience? Because if you [want to] sit in the back and fiddle around on your phone, it’s not the high school for you.”
No matter what one thinks about their school, City of Bridges offers lessons for Obama Academy. Administration might not like the complete abolition of grades, but their model of student engagement and voice in major decisions would be welcome in some form at Obama. In the end, City of Bridges provides a different experience with a different model, and Mr. Bartlett’s parting message to Obama students was that, “There is a real opportunity in your high school years, and I think finding ways to seize that opportunity with an eye towards what [you want] to do after high school [is important]…So go for it.”