Bridge School marks 30th birthday, transition

MIDDLEBURY — Richard Nessen still vividly recalls the day that he, his wife Kathy, and friends Gerry and Bobbi Loney decided to put into motion what had been a dream of starting a school.
“We had had a notion of starting a school together since the 1970s and one night, we just said ‘We’re going to do it.’ We gave notice at our jobs,” he said. “It was kind of like stepping off a cliff.”
It was 30 years ago that the foursome took that big step, which has produced a very successful landing. Their combined efforts — and those of subsequent board members, teachers, parents and students — have resulted in what is now the thriving Bridge School on Middlebury’s Exchange Street. The K-6 school will mark its 30th this summer with a big bash on Aug. 21 that will feature performances by some very talented musical alums and some final bows from Richard Nessen and Bobbi Loney, who are retiring from the teaching staff.
“I figure 30 years is a career,” said Nessen, who remains unsure about his next step, but knows it will include a lot of volunteering and a modicum of mystery.
“Thirty is a nice, round number,” he said. “It is time, for me.”
Loney has pared her duties to part-time at the school during the past two years, so her transition into retirement won’t be quite as abrupt. It will seem strange, however.
“I won’t know what it’s like until it’s gone,” Loney said of daily school experiences that have helped shape her life for the past three decades.
The four founders back in 1980 built their school on a foundation that included some basic principles. There would be communication, diplomacy, conflict resolution, and an emphasis on the arts. And students would be allowed to make choices in their course loads. While students must take core reading, math and science courses, they have the freedom to chose among a wide range of elective courses.
Organizers are particularly proud on the school’s arts offerings.
“Every child has an arts experience here every day,” Nessen said. “Kids who do arts regularly … we find do better academically. There is a sense of pride, identity and in a sense, power.”
While the Bridge School kicked off with just seven students and four teachers, the curriculum soon caught on, to the point where enrollment applications forced the Nessens and Loneys to extend their capacity cap — several times, before reaching a definitive max of 65 children. There are currently eight faculty teaching 61 children at the Bridge School, a converted dairy barn that has been expanded twice to accommodate the program.
“The reason for the cap is that at the school, every teacher knows every kid and every kid knows every teacher,” Nessen said.
“The philosophy is to create a community,” he added. “We wanted to treat children’s education as ‘real life,’ not as preparation.”
Nessen noted he and the other founders elected to establish the Bridge School in Middlebury not out of a perception that the local public school was deficient, but because of its excellence.
“This was just presented as an alternative, not in response to the lack (of quality education),” Nessen said.
The Bridge School is a nonprofit venture that next year will charge a tuition fee of $7,890 and that annually raises more than $50,000 in scholarship assistance, according to Nessen.
Bridge School’s two retiring founders are confident that the school will stay true to its core principles. It is that confidence that is making their decision to retire a little easier. They will both continue to contribute to the school in various ways, including on the board of directors. But they realize they will miss the day-to-day, in-school activities of which they have been a part for so long.
“I guess what I will miss the most is the kids,” Nessen said. “They are the energy producers. I will also miss working with a real devoted staff. (The staff) chose this place because they have control over the school.”
Loney will especially miss directing the students in the school’s annual holiday shows. She enjoyed seeing all the students file down the center aisle on the way to the performance stage.
“It’s precious and powerful,” Loney said.
Loney is leaving at a time when the children of some of the children she taught are making their way into the school. She said she will miss making the daily connections with all of the students.
“They’ve fed my soul,” she said. “I feel privileged.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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