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Program creates pathways to graduation

Michael Scheel, right, with graduate students from the Building Bridges Program.
Michael Scheel, right, with graduate students from the Building Bridges Program.

Donning black gowns and caps, they joined their peers among Lincoln Northeast High School’s 2014 graduating class. They waited patiently to cross the stage, grasp their diploma and finally, after four years, flip the tassel.

They are 37 of the 41 Lincoln Northeast students who, in ninth grade, joined the Building Bridges program — a dropout prevention initiative led by CYFS affiliate Michael Scheel and Gina Kunz, CYFS research associate professor. The program is designed to help freshmen transition to high school and navigate a four-year path to graduation.

The Building Bridges program was implemented in Lincoln Northeast and Lincoln North Star high schools in 2010 after a citywide push to raise graduation rates. Since then, 172 participating students have earned an average of 55-60 graduation credits their freshman year, Scheel said, putting them on track to graduate in four years.

“A key part of ninth grade is getting students to believe in themselves again,” Scheel said. “Students in our program generally don’t like school, but we try to change their attitude from defeatist to ‘What will it take to succeed?’”

Part of what it takes for students to succeed, Scheel said, is a focus on individual strengths and evidence-based positive psychology. The Building Bridges program is composed of six key components: fostering caring relationships; identifying and enhancing personal strengths; developing purposes for school; monitoring progress; connecting with home; and promoting student well-being.

A key part of ninth grade is getting students to believe in themselves again.”

— Michael Scheel, professor of educational psychology

Under Scheel’s supervision, first and third-year students in UNL’s graduate counseling psychology program conduct weekly counseling sessions with participants in Building Bridges. During these sessions, counselors help students steer clear of avoidance goals, such as “Don’t fail math class,” and support them in setting up approach goals — “Earn a B in math class.” They also assist students with emotional, personal and social difficulties, and conduct risk assessments for suicidal or self-injurious behavior.

“Identifying desired outcomes through approach goals is a big part of what we do,” Scheel said. “We also advocate for students and consult with teachers and guardians at home. In doing this, we try to connect different ecological systems.”

After a recent uptick in suicide episodes at several schools, the Building Bridges program will expand to include a group counseling component. With curriculum developed by Alexandra Dahl, counseling psychology graduate student, the group sessions will equip students with skills to use at home and school, with an emphasis on positive psychology to encourage hope.

“Our society is so focused on deficits, and out of basic human emotion, there are so many negatives,” Dahl said. “If we can build up the positives, it can help with problem-solving, self-compassion and self-efficacy.”

The Building Bridges program has been continuously funded since 2004 through sources including the Woods Charitable Fund grant and the Lincoln Public Schools Dropout Prevention grant.