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Bridging the Gap

Fairborn Digital Academy Helps High School Students Bridge the Gap

My husband and I were enjoying a sunny walk with our dogs at Caesar’s Creek last weekend when we approached a wooden footbridge. As I stepped onto the bridge with my left leg, a plank suddenly gave way, and my whole leg fell into the gap, which was about 5 feet off the ground.

Anyone who has been in an accident can tell you that the very moment it happens, there is no pain or fear. In essence, just a startled reflex, until the sensation of pain reaches the body part. My left leg, trapped between the planks, began to throb. My immediate reaction was to rock back and forth, saying, “I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay.” When John helped me to my feet, adrenaline kicked in, and the pain subsided enough to get back to the car, so no broken bones. It was a broken bridge, and I fell into a gap.

I work in a school where talented teachers build bridges every day to help teens stay on track and keep them from falling into the gap. Fairborn Digital Academy offers high school students an alternative way to graduate. They attend school a few days a week, working directly with teachers and accountability coaches, and complete classes at home. It takes a special kind of student to have a sense of responsibility to work at home. The majority of our students step up and graduate.

FDA has a program that furnishes students with teachers, coaches, computers, curriculum, and internet connections. Accountability coaches monitor their progress when they’re not in school, and encourage them to finish each lesson. As students gain credits and advance to the next level, many of them see successes they had rarely experienced.

As each student completes the required courses and tests to graduate, we publish their names on our “graduates” bulletin board. One of our students couldn’t convince his mom that he had finished. He brought her in and proudly pointed to the bulletin board: “See Mom. I did it! I graduated,” he crowed.

We had a graduation ceremony in January, and 22 students collected their diplomas. Twenty-two students – some of whom had been trying for a while, some who had been discouraged, had complicated home lives, had babies, had low self-esteem. And all of these students put aside their difficulties and worked hard and graduated. In June we will have another batch of graduates. I enjoy putting their names up on the bulletin board.
A large percentage of students in the Fairborn area are economically disadvantaged due to the recession. Our flexible schedule allows students who work or have family obligations to graduate at their own pace. Some of our students need to be in a smaller, no drama environment rather than a traditional high school. That environment comes with specific pressures: to fit in, to excel, to join a team, to be visible. We have some who had been bullied or neglected. They feel safe at our school.

Students pass by where I sit every day. Some of them stop and talk to me. Sometimes what I hear is a real eye-opener. A teen who couldn’t sleep because her bed was repossessed. A girl whose mother yelled at her and scratched her arm before school. A young man in the hospital. One who lives in a homeless shelter. Others with serious family issues.

How do we keep students from falling into the gap? Once a teen turns 18, he no longer falls under the protective arm of Children’s Services. Some of our kids are hungry – for jobs, for driver’s licenses, for cars – and a lot of them are hungry for food.

What a tremendous hole to fill. What a gap!

As the school secretary, I’m responsible for keeping track of student’s records, helping the principal, answering the phones, doing web content, and so forth. But I feel a moral responsibility to keep my eyes, ears –- and arms – open to the need that is present in this age range. I was once a troubled teen, filled with confusion and very little confidence. I want to listen, and try to understand. No, I’m not a teacher. I’m a learner. These kids teach me!

Remembering the pressures of high school, I know that not every student fits into a mold, but every student has potential. If I can do one small kindness that results in a positive feeling for a student – that lifts that student and keeps him from falling into the gap, then that’s what I want to do.

I am very proud of the experienced teachers we have, and of our principal, who cares very deeply about every student. When our students experience the success of graduating, they are in a much healthier place than they were before. Hopefully, they can take that momentum and move forward as they enter the adult world.

My tiny part in all of this is to help wherever I can. It doesn’t take all that much to lend a helping hand, to lift someone, to help them cross that bridge, actually to repair that gap. It happens every day at Fairborn Digital Academy.

Molly Bordonaro Hall