Neil Young Proud Of Bridge School's Global Impact

By Karen Bliss 4/20/11 |

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Neil and Pegi Young’s Bridge School in Hillsborough, California, was a much-needed, one-of-a-kind school for children with severe speech and physical impairments when it opened in 1987. Now it is a model for other schools and uses communication technology to teach its methods to other teachers around the world.

“Bridge School is a model,” Neil Young told Samaritanmag backstage at the Juno Awards in Toronto where he accepted the Allan Waters Humanitarian Award in late March. 

“We have a teachers-in-residence program, where teachers come from all around the world and every year we have a visiting teacher from a different part of the world. Then they go back to their countries and we support [them]. And now, more with Cisco Systems and Tele-Presence, we communicate directly with all these schools throughout the world using the Bridge School model.”

The Youngs started the school after they were unable to find a suitable learning environment for their son, Ben, who was born with cerebral palsy. Teaming up with Jim Forderer, another parent of a special needs child, and Dr. Marilyn Buzolich, a speech and language pathologist, they envisioned a school in which each child was given individual attention, based on their skills and abilities, and encouraged to grow and develop into adulthood.

In 1986, on Oct. 13, the first annual Bridge School Benefit Concert was held, featuring Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Don Henley, Nils Lofgren and Robin Williams, which raised the funds needed to launch the school. The founders assembled a team of teachers, speech and language pathologists and instructional assistants and the following year, inside an elementary school in Hillsborough, The Bridge School opened its doors.

“From the outset, the goal was to return the children to their home school districts as soon as it was appropriate,” it states on the school’s web site. “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.”

The Bridge School provides programs in education, research, transition and outreach. Staff consists of special educators, speech and language pathologists, assistive technologists, instructional design and digital media specialists, in addition to instructional assistants and internationally known specialists, ranging from orientation and mobility experts to linguists, as consultants.

The school’s first graduate was Thanh Diep in 1991. She returned to the public school system and entered grade 6 at Horace Mann Middle School in San Francisco.  According to the web site, her situation made it apparent that follow-up was needed and Bridge School implemented The Transition Program “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.” In May 2005, Diep earned a degree in Liberal Studies from San Francisco State University.

In 1995, The Bridge School constructed a permanent building on the campus of North Elementary School in Hillsborough. “Bridge students are included in the classes at North, giving staff an opportunity to determine what communication and education strategies work successfully in that environment, what modifications are necessary for students to participate, and how transition will support the students once they return to their home school district,” the website states.

“Our school is a small school with a limited number of students,” Young told Samaritanmag, “so that we can use and make an example of the teaching method for these kids that are quite often brilliant, but they’re bottled up in these bodies that don’t work like ours. And their heads don’t work like ours. But they still have so much to say and so much to think. So we just try to make it happen for them and that’s what we do.”

In 1997, a Teacher in Residence program was established to help support teachers in nations where the use of augmentative and alternative communication technology was in its infancy. Usha Dalvi from New Delhi was the first recipient of the Teacher in Residence award in 1998-99. Since then, the program has served Ala Smychek from Poland, Sarah Yong from Singapore, Gabriela Berlanga from Mexico City and Veronica Gavu from Cape Town, South Africa.

“We are a worldwide organization,” said Young. “We reach out around the globe and even more now with Cisco Systems helping us and supplying technology for us to get inside classrooms around the world. So we’re doing very well with it. I’m very proud of what I’ve been able to do — which I never would have been able to do without my wife, who’s number one. She was executive director for a number of years, and without my son, who is the primary reason for the school existing in the first place.”

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