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Simon's Rock: A Venture in 'Early' College

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Great Barrington, Mass.--John Donne, the English poet and theologian, entered Oxford in 1584--at the age of 12. But he didn't have to worry about not having anyone to play with after school. In his time, it was as much the rule as the exception to enter college so early in life.

But today, virtually all American youths must march through 12 grades of elementary and secondary school before they are considered fit for matriculation into college.

Penny Brierley, a good student, found herself up against this system two years ago. Then 17 years old and bored with the education she had gotten through the 11th grade at Holy Savior Menard High School in Alexandria, La., she wanted the challenge of college work but not the pressures that go with being younger than virtually anyone else on campus.

She enrolled at Simon's Rock College, a small school "centrally isolated," as staff members say, between Boston and New York in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains. It is the only four-year college in the country with a freshmen class made up entirely of high-school-age students. Fifty-five percent of this year's entering class of 115 have completed the 11th grade; 40 percent have finished only the 10th grade. Five percent were in the 9th grade last year.

'Bright, Not Brilliant'

But unlike some colleges--notably the University of Chicago in the 1930's and 1940's and more recently The Johns Hopkins University--that have tried to carve out a niche in their regular undergraduate programs for a handful of adolescent "whiz kids," Simon's Rock accepts only students who wish to start college early and who are "bright, not brilliant." It draws its students from the top half, academically, of all college-bound students.

"Simon's Rock is saying that there are significant numbers of high-school-age students who are ready for a much more rigorous academic challenge than they are being given," said Eileen Handelman, the academic dean of the college, summing up its raison d'etre. "We're providing them the elbow-room they need to grow."

"We are trying a serious alternative to what is going on in the American high school," explained Leon Botstein, the president of both Simon's Rock and Bard Col-lege, a traditional liberal-arts school that assumed control of Simon's Rock in 1979. "There is no doubt that, in general, kids who come out of the 12th grade have far less to show for it than can be reasonably expected. The fact that our enrollment has risen so confirms this."

In the past three years, the school's enrollment has risen 50 percent, to 308, even though it costs students roughly $12,000 annually to attend. There has also been a steady increase over the past several years in the number of high-school students nationally taking college-level courses through, for example, the Advanced Placement program administered by the College Board or at local community colleges.

Gordon M. Ambach, the commissioner of education in New York, recently proposed that the 12th grade be eliminated in that state, in part, he said, out of a belief that high schools are not challenging many older students.

Indeed, unhappiness with high school is the main reason why Simon's Rock students, 75 percent of whom are from suburban public schools, go to the college, they say. For many of them, high school was "a cultural and intellectual wasteland."

"It was ridiculous," said Tara Cafiero, a 16-year-old freshman who left public school in Pine Plains, N.Y., after the 10th"You could come in three days a week and get a 90 in the course."

Others say they were ostracized by teachers and other students for expressing alternative views in classes; and many assert they would have dropped out of school if they hadn't come to Simon's Rock. "I dropped up, instead," commented Penny Brierley, the sophomore from Louisiana.

"They tend to be risk-takers," said Nancy R. Goldberger, a clinical psychologist who has spent the past nine years studying the cognitive and affective development of Simon's Rock students, under grants from the Carnegie Foundation and the U.S. Education Department.

"Many were restrained by the rigidness of secondary education," she said. "They had never been given permission to think. They are not unusually bright, but they value their own individuality and respect each other's points of view."

Simon's Rock students, a markedly articulate group of 16-to-20-year-olds, select their studies from an unadulterated liberal-arts curriculum taught by a faculty of about 40 (many with Ivy League Ph.D.'s) in a self-contained school community almost two miles from the nearest town, Great Barrington.

The college eases its new students, who this year average 16.9 years old, into a more individualized and rigorous course of study. The small number who enter after the 9th grade take a year-long "Traditional Studies Program," consisting of English, mathematics, science, social studies, and the arts. They also take a three-week intensive writing seminar on campus during the summer before their first semester and attend mandatory lectures on such topics as sexuality and drug use.

Older freshmen also take the writing course (which is new this year), but then move directly into a two-year "General Education Sequence" that includes a semester of science, courses in mathematics, art, and French or Spanish, and a series of three one-semester interdisciplinary seminars on historical, cultural, and moral "perspectives."

The sequence was initiated two years ago. "There was a time when it would have been difficult to impose these kinds of requirements," said Dean Handelman. "Fortunately, the pendulum swings."

Handling College Work

Students, according to members of the faculty, vary in their readiness to handle college work.

"Some are as prepared as any excellent college freshman can be; some are still babies and need hand-feeding," said Martin S. Silberberg, a chemistry professor. "The amount of growth in one year, though, is astonishing."

Most students (70 percent, last year) transfer from Simon's Rock after two years; many go to Ivy League colleges. Also, it's not uncommon for a Simon's Rock graduate to have a bachelor's degree but not a high-school diploma.

Those who remain--this number has risen steadily since 1976, when the college began offering a bachelor's degree--choose from one of seven interdisciplinary majors, such as "Arts and Aesthetics," "Intercultural Studies," or "Natural Sciences." They are encouraged to take their junior year away from the campus.

Elizabeth B. Hall, headmistress of Concord Academy from 1949-63, founded Simon's Rock in 1964 on the site of her fa-ther's former estate, to offer, she said recently, a more challenging curriculum for the brighter girls at Concord Academy.

Her timing probably could have been better. For Simon's Rock--young, vulnerable, and, by design, an "alternative" school--soon found itself engulfed by the "counter-culture" lifestyle of the late 1960's and early 1970's. "It became a place that people thought they could send a problem child to," noted Mr. Botstein.

"Sure, we had our share of drugs and discipline problems," added Dean Handelman, a noted physicist who has been at the college since 1968, "but no more than our share. Unfortunately, a reputation sticks to you like fly paper. We are not a haven for every messed up kid in the country. Do we take risks? Sure. No 16-year-old should be written off."

In 1970, Simon's Rock became coeducational; in 1979, with 100 students and on the verge of financial collapse, it was taken over by Bard College, 50 miles to the southwest, in New York. Since then, the school (now officially called Simon's Rock of Bard College) has experienced something of a resurgence.

General-Studies Curriculum

Enrollment is up, to more than 300; at the urging of Mr. Botstein, the new general-studies curriculum was introduced; in 1981, the college expanded its campus by taking over the nearby Fathers of the Sacred Heart Seminary; and officials say the institution's fiscal condition has improved.

Moreover, "the students are more serious, more willing to work than when I came here; they have a clearer idea of what they want," said Arthur S. Hillman, who has taught art courses at Simon's Rock for eight years.

Vestiges of the 1960's linger nonetheless at Simon's Rock. Long hair and Indian skirts are standard attire, and the pungent odor of the clove cigarettes that a preponderance of students smoke lingers in many buildings. ("It doesn't get you high or anything, a lot of people just do it," one student said.) Swimming nude in Ms. Hall's ponds, notes the student handbook, is not acceptable. Nor are waterbeds and coed bathrooms.

Basketball (all teams are coeducational) was added to the athletic offerings (which include karate, backpacking, yoga, scuba diving, aerobics, volleyball, and "frisbee golf," among other sports) two years ago, when the college took over a court owned by a local seminary. There is no football team or stadium, nor are there cheerleaders or fraternities.

There are also the "Granola's,"--those students who, according to one who counts herself among their number, "are into Indian skirts, tapestries, incense, leg warmers (and they don't dance), not wearing bras, and hitchhiking down to New Mexico for the winter solstice." Simon's Rock is still not quite in the cultural mainstream.

That's the way Simon's Rock students seem to want it. "There's just too many things to be concerned about, other than who went with who to the bonfire and who's wearing what clothes," said Karen Conroe, a 16-year-old sophomore.

"In high school, the center of attention is your car and your girlfriend; here it is your work and your ideas," added Brian May, a senior from Chevy Chase, Md. Provost Robert Ackerman says there is a "radically democratic spirit" about Simon's Rock.

Freshmen live together in small, coed dormitories, where they are supervised by "residence directors." Other students, with a few exceptions, also live in dorms or college-owned houses on the campus. Since the school is so isolated, students "tend to have a lot of small parties" in their rooms, they say. A film society shows upwards of 60 movies a year.

There are clearly defined campus rules of social conduct, but they allow Simon's Rock students a good deal more freedom than most of their peers.

Substantial Social Freedoms

It is the willingness of the college to give its adolescent students substantial social freedoms (and, thus, responsibilities), in addition to a more demanding academic program, that distinguishes it from other "early college" experiments and traditional boarding schools, contends Ms. Handelman, the academic dean.

"Some students are extremely immature when they get here," she said. "They are dazzled by the freedom, and they have no glimmer that there are responsibilities for yourself that go along with freedoms. On the other hand, we [society] clearly hold adolescents too long in a mode of dependency that is appropriate for children. At Simon's Rock, we're trying to give students a structure in which they make choices. And we're trying to show them that choices have consequences.

"Students in early-admissions programs [at traditional colleges] are out of their league, socially. There is no guidance system for them. But bringing college courses into the high school isn't the answer, either, because that doesn't address the need for adolescents to take greater responsibility for their personal growth. At Simon's Rock, there is homogeneity--everyone is about the same age--and there is a system for making sure that students are thinking about the consequences of their actions."

Under this "system," each student has an academic and residential advisor, whom he or she meets with regularly, both formally and informally. The administration charts students' grades and behavior closely. When there is slippage, the college intervenes, either through the student's advisor, one of the deans, or through the school counseling service, Ms. Handelman said.

"It's an alerting system," noted Ms. Goldberger, the psychologist. "Most of the problems occur among the freshmen," she said. "There's no denying it, it's a really rocky transition."

Students seem to agree. "I went through a period when I wasn't sure I could do the work," said Miriam Shadis, a 17-year-old sophomore from North Edgecomb, Me. Added Ronald Vitz, a sophomore from nearby Saugerties, N.Y., where his father is president of the school board: "When you first get here, you are really young; after a year, you wise up.''

"Students who come here must have a strong enough sense of self to handle much less structure, an environment where you do not have study halls to fill in all your free time," said Sharon Pinkerton, the director of admissions, who noted that high-school guidance counselors, reluctant to part with their better students, view Simon's Rock coolly.

Half Receive Financial Aid

About 50 percent of the students in each class receive some kind of financial aid (this year, the average amount is $2,700); minorities make up 7 percent of the student body.

Simon's Rock gets between one-third and one-half of its students through direct-mail solicitations of candidates identified for the college by the Educational Testing Service. The Princeton-based testing organization sells the names and profiles of students who take its Scholastic Aptitude Test.

According to the results of Ms. Goldberger's studies, the adolescent students at Simon's Rock have responded well to the increased academic and personal responsibilities they have assumed at the college.

After comparing the development of Simon's Rock students to that of their college peers (who were, on average, two years older) in traditional institutions, including Ivy League schools, she concluded that "they are more sophisticated thinkers. They show a greater awareness of the complexity of issues, demonstrate a greater tolerance of ambiguity, and can handle life problems more effectively. They do not accept top-of-the-head statements; they really listen and know how to talk to each other."

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