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instead of accelerating or “advancing,” in the spirit of high
school Advanced Placement courses, the school aims for the
intensity, rigor and self-discipline of higher education, two
years ahead of schedule.
Like Bard College and Simon’s Rock, Bard High School
Early College begins the school year with a “Writing and
Thinking Workshop,” at which students are encouraged
to use writing as a tool to find out what they think. “At
the university level,” Botstein told parents at a welcoming
event, “the production of language is inseparable from the
creation of thought.” The goal of the week-long workshop, he
said, is to lose the idea that language is merely a vehicle for
delivering ideas.
Exercises encourage students to begin with a theme or an
idea, to develop it in a series of sketches or improvisations,
and to push ahead without knowing precisely where they
are headed. “We want students to use ideas as they come,”
said Botstein, who is also the conductor of the American
Symphony Orchestra. “We want them to write the way a
composer writes music, by finding a theme and constructing
a piece from it.”
Latin professor David Clark began an afternoon
workshop session for year-one and year-two students with
a 15-minute free-writing exercise. Students were to write
spontaneously on any important educational experience
in their lives. Students chose a variety of topics, from
favorite teachers to discussions with older relatives, to jobs
that brought them into contact with interesting people.
In successive rounds, the class shared positive feedback
and asked questions of the writer. In the end, the writer
questioned the class about what was missing or misplaced in
the text. The result, after a week, was a portfolio of rough and
polished pieces to be shared at a “celebratory reading.”
“I’ve taught at Oberlin and Columbia,” said Clark, who
is beginning his second year at Bard, “and I think the talent
level is comparable. There are some who are great, a few who
are not good, and a lot in the middle.”
Finding good students has not been simple. Ray Peterson,
the Bard principal, reported losing 15 percent of the first
year’s entering ninth grade class. The school managed to
retain all but five members of the 2001 year-one class. “That
was the recruiting class we were most careful with,” Peterson
said. “We took chances on quite a few ninth graders and it
didn’t always work out. Some didn’t have the habits of mind
to study. We asked them to leave.” The school is not just
looking for raw academic talent. They want students who can
grow into self-directed individuals who see learning as the
primary focus of high school.
At the same time, the school is sensitive to diversity issues.
“We don’t want the student body to skew too white,” said
Peterson, who noted that the city high schools requiring
rigorous admissions exams tend to enroll disproportionate
numbers of Jewish and Asian students. Five students
interviewed by
National CrossTalk
—all of themwhite—
discovered Bard when they were investigating Simon’s Rock
as a boarding school. That school charges upwards of $35,000
per year. Bard is a free public high school.
Older students, the ones who enter as year-ones at about
the age of 16, tend to come to Bard because they want a new
challenge. “Here I have to actually
think,” said Joseph Robateau,
now 17, a year-two who left an
accelerated cohort of 50 students
at Brooklyn Technical, one of New
York City’s three most selective
public high schools, to enter Bard
when it opened. “There are no
wrong answers here if you can argue
your point. At Tech we had blocked
classes with more work than other
students, more math, and math labs.
But we really just took tests about the teachers’ ideas. You
could figure out what they wanted. So you did that sometimes
instead of figuring out what you thought yourself.”
Of course, getting a jump on college is an added
attraction. For Liz Dempsey, 18, who was attending Convent
of the Sacred Heart, a private girls school on Manhattan’s
tony Upper East Side, there were financial incentives as
well. “My family saved four years of tuition,” she said. “Two
years in high school and two years in college.” Even so, her
decision to transfer had more to do with finding a new style
of school. “Junior and senior year were just going to be about
competing for good grades in Advanced Placement courses,”
said Dempsey, who parlayed a year of Chinese language at
Bard into a three-week fellowship to China last summer. “It
sounds like a cliché, but we spend a lot of time here working
Ray Peterson, principal at Bard High School Early College, says many ninth graders
lack the “habits of mind to study” required of students in the accelerated program.
Bard High School Early
College aims for the
intensity, rigor and
self-discipline of higher
education, two years
ahead of schedule.
Lisa Quiñones, Black Star, for CrossTalk