The Bridge School – A Rich History and Promising Future

When the idea of The Bridge School was formulated in 1986, no one could have imagined that this organization would evolve from a small educational program serving local children with severe physical and speech impairments to an internationally recognized leader in the field of augmentative and alternative communication. Funding for moving from idea to reality came from a concert hosted by Neil and Pegi Young and featuring their friends Bruce Springsteen, Robin Williams, Don Henley, Nils Lofgren and Tom Petty.

In the Beginning

When The Bridge School opened in 1987, the founders were looking to establish a program where their children could receive the support they required to communicate effectively. At that time, many children with severe physical and speech impairments were in educational situations that did not meet their needs. Frequently the teachers were not prepared to educate children with this level of impairment. Education administrators inappropriately grouped children with special needs. Funding in special education was funneled into programs designed to serve large groups of children with a variety of disabilities. Children who, based on their physical disability were unable to speak, were frequently overlooked and often under educated. Pegi Young, Jim Forderer and Marilyn Buzolich envisioned a different future for these children – a brighter future where they would leave The Bridge School and return to their home school district with the skills they needed to successfully participate academically and socially with their typically developing peers.

Fast Forward to the Present

Imagine a place where preschool children with severe physical disabilities have access to the same toys and games as other 3 and 4 year olds. Imagine what it means to these three year old children to independently move from the music center to the library and from there to an accessible outside playground. Imagine how all the children feel when they are able to come to school and share their home news with everyone. Imagine how the parents react when they see their children using their walkers, communicating with their friends and participating in educational activities in spite of the tremendous physical challenges they face. Just imagine what it means to everyone involved in that child’s life when they graduate from high school and participate in the decisions that must be made for their future. At The Bridge School, it’s more than imagination – it’s the reality we see every day.

From the Outset: Setting Expectations

The Bridge School founders pulled together a strong professional team and developed an intervention model that featured teachers, speech and language pathologists and instructional assistants working collaboratively to teach children with severe physical and speech impairments how to communicate effectively. The school was located in an elementary school in Hillsborough, CA. From the outset, the goal was to return the children to their home school districts as soon as it was appropriate. This location was critical to achieving that purpose as the students had opportunities to interact with their typically developing peers and the teachers had access to the standard curriculum and other classroom teachers.

Exploring New Boundaries

Thanh Diep became The Bridge School’s first graduate. She returned to her home school district to enter a 6th grade class at Horace Mann Middle School in San Francisco. When Thanh returned to her home school district, it was obvious that a support structure needed to be in place to ensure her successful transition. The Transition Program was established to provide resources and training to build competence among the various professionals working with Bridge graduates and to provide support for their families as they advance through the educational system. This innovative program set the standard for support for children with special needs in the general education environment. Thanh went on to graduate from San Francisco State University and is a working artist.

Expanding the Model

Funding from a generous donor made it possible for professionals from the Bridge to work with two local school districts, Oakland and Berkeley, to establish programs incorporating the principles and organizational structure of The Bridge School. The Technology for Augmentative Communication and Learning Enhancement (T.A.C.L.E.) program in Oakland and Project REACH (Resources for Education and Augmentative Communication enHancement) in Berkeley were collaborative programs designed to help school staff more effectively apply augmentative communication and assistive technology as well as develop educational strategies for students. The T.A.C.L.E. Program has continued to grow and now supports children with severe speech and physical impairments from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Reaching Out: AAC By the Bay Conference

Bridging research, best practice and families was the theme of the first AAC By the Bay conference in 2005. This conference brought professionals from throughout the United States, Mexico and Europe together to share information on assessment, literacy, transition and families. The tradition of inviting nationally and internationally recognized leaders in specialized areas that address the educational and communication needs of children with severe physical impairments and complex communication needs has provided critical information to professionals and parents throughout the world.  A partnership with Cisco has made it possible to reach across the globe with a live web-cast of conference.  Foreign countries that have participated in the AAC By the Bay include Mexico, Argentina, Canada, Brazil, Ireland, Poland, Romania, China, Thailand, Puerto Rico, Russia, Singapore, India, South Korea, and Australia.

Reaching Out: Bridging Communities through Alternative Communication (BCTAC)

This Bridge School program was established to provide opportunities for a diverse group of adults with unique abilities to come together in social, educational and recreational activities to share experiences and ideas, collaborate to plan meaningful events, and develop ways to raise awareness of individuals who use Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC).

Going Global: The Bridge School International Teacher-in-Residence Program

The Bridge School International Teacher-in-Residence program was established in 1997 to expand the outreach efforts of our organization and to impact the education of children with severe physical and speech impairments throughout the world. Every other year a professional from a country where training in the use of augmentative communication is limited or nonexistent is selected to come to The Bridge School for 4 to 10 months to work alongside our staff in the classrooms, attend classes at the university, participate in professional conferences and visit other programs serving our population. Their obligation is to disseminate what they have learned when they return to their home country. The success of this program is evident in the progress that has been made in educating children with special needs in India, Poland, Singapore, Mexico, South Africa, South Korea and Romania. The Teachers-in-Residence have worked to change the culture and educational practices in their home country, conducted research, published articles, organized workshops and conferences, consulted with families and educators, not only in their home country, but in surrounding regions as well.

Where do we go from here?

It is frequently in the face of adversity that one recognizes their strength. In spite of difficult times, our commitment to our mission remains as strong as ever. Our dedication to the children and families we serve is unwavering. Our respect and appreciation for the support of our contributors grows on a daily basis when we see, even in trying times, the generous outpouring in support of our efforts. Where do we go from here? We continue to move forward to reach our goal of providing an exceptional education to exceptionally deserving children and their families.