Forming the Future: Arlington Catholic offers 'Bridge Academy' to prepare incoming students

ARLINGTON -- The transition to high school can be difficult for students in the best of circumstances, but even more so after a year or more of irregular, interrupted learning. Recognizing this, the teachers and administrators of Arlington Catholic High School created a new program called the Bridge Academy at the start of the 2021-2022 school year, offering eighth-grade graduates another year to prepare academically, socially, and emotionally for ninth grade.

Arlington Catholic High School (ACHS) and St. Agnes School, which includes an elementary and middle school, both belong to the Catholic Parishes of Arlington. For years, the high school saw a growing number of incoming ninth-grade students, either graduating from St. Agnes School or coming in from other schools, who wanted to repeat their eighth-grade year at St. Agnes School before moving on to ACHS, due to age, academics, or other factors. This sometimes led to overcrowded classrooms or having to turn students away.

The coronavirus pandemic compounded this trend, as students were forced to switch to virtual instruction for many months, taking away the opportunities for social and emotional growth that come with in-person interactions.

"There were a lot of kids that, being outside the school for so long, had different issues with school phobia," ACHS science teacher Daniel Munroe told The Pilot.

ACHS Principal John Graceffa said the idea for the Bridge Academy grew out of conversations between the administration and families as they saw students' increasing need for additional time for instruction and adjustment before beginning ninth grade.

"This distinct program gives them the opportunity to bridge that gap," Graceffa said.

The Bridge Academy gives eighth-grade graduates another year to prepare for ninth grade while still allowing them to take part in the high school community. It is not a repetition of eighth grade or a replacement for ninth grade, but rather creates an additional year during which students can get used to being in school again and catch up in subjects where they fell behind.

Munroe, who has taught science classes at ACHS for nine years, said the program was thought of as "kind of a stepping stone for those that didn't want to necessarily repeat their full year of eighth grade."

"This is a great way for them to get back on track and to excel," he said.

Housed in the high school, the Bridge Academy launched in the fall of 2021 with a class of 14 students. While they have separate instruction for most of their subjects, they can test into different levels of math and foreign languages and take those classes with students in other grades. They also join their peers for lunch and can participate in extracurricular activities, including sports, drama productions, and a mentorship program that allows them to connect with upperclassmen.

The Bridge Academy's curriculum is designed to allow specialization and one-on-one instruction. In addition to different academic subjects, the students' schedules also include learning study skills from the director of the school's Achievement Center.

Patricia Crane, ACHS's director of enrollment, said the teachers for the Bridge Academy classes were excited by the new challenge it offered them.

"It's been fun for them to step out of their comfort zones and teach something a little bit different," she said.

To teach the Bridge Academy's science class, Munroe identified concepts that many of the students were missing, having either forgotten them or not been able to learn them adequately in a virtual format.

"It's a great opportunity for these kids who were missing little bits and pieces, where they would have been too far ahead of their peers repeating eighth grade, but not quite caught up to their ninth-grade peers. So, this is a great program to help catch them up and even bring them above and beyond where they would have been," Munroe said.

Crane said they plan to continue the Bridge Academy program and hope to expand it, though they still want it to be specialized and able to offer the personalization it has enjoyed so far.

Speaking to The Pilot last month, Crane said the school had held two open houses recently where people showed interest in the Bridge Academy and that others have heard about its success through word of mouth.

"It's good for us, too, because it opens us up to some kids who may not have thought of Arlington Catholic before, and now they realize what a Catholic high school experience can mean," Crane said.