Postgraduate Programs for Diploma Holders Appear To Be Growing at Boarding Schools
By Mark Walsh
North Bridgton, Me--John Powers acknowledges that he "partied a lot" in high school. When college-football recruiters came along, they were impressed by his athletic ability, but not by his grades.
So, in an attempt to improve his prospects of earning a football scholarship, the 18-year-old native of Springfield, Mass., took the advice of a family friend and enrolled this year in the "postgraduate" program at Bridgton Academy here.
"I had never heard of this before in my life," he said recently, referring to the idea of a "13th year" of precollegiate education for high-school graduates.
So far, he believes the program has meant a worthwhile change from his high-school lifestyle. He takes four academic classes--physics, social problems, advanced mathematics, and advanced English. He has after-school football practice for the Bridgton team, followed by dinner, then two hours of mandatory study hall each night.
"You can relate to the students here because most everyone is in the same boat," he said.
John Powers and the 157 other postgraduate students at Bridgton are part of a little-known segment of American private education. Instead of heading straight to college, they are willing to undergo a year of study at a preparatory boarding school--an intermediate step that proponents of 13th-year programs argue is a wise investment of time and money that should be considered by many more high-school graduates..
Number of Programs Growing
Nationwide, the postgraduate option is selected by a relatively small number of students each year. At a core sample of schools belonging to the National Association of Independent Schools, the number of students enrolled in such programs increased by 18 percent from 1981 to $1988.
But the total number enrolled in postgraduate programs at nais-member schools dropped sharply from 1988 to 1989, from 1,589 to 1,330. Officials attribute the decrease to the declining number of 18-year-olds and the related fact that some in this group may have had an easier time than their counterparts in recent years of getting admitted to the colleges of their choice.
The number of independent boarding schools offering 13th-year programs appears to be increasing, however. Last year, 108 boarding schools offered the option; this year the figure is 127, said Margaret W. Goldsborough, a spokesman for the nais.
The postgraduate programs have their roots at some of the nation's oldest preparatory academies, where before the 1920's the high-school years as they are known today were not as well defined, said Joseph R. Curry, headmaster of Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Mass.
"Many academies were serving a widespread population in terms of age and academic ability," he said.
Many other traditional boarding 4 schools picked up on the idea over the years, admitting a limited number of postgraduate students and mixing them in with the students in the high-school grades, Mr. Curry said. Cushing limits the number of postgraduates it admits to 25 out of the normal total school enrollment of 400.
Benefits of Remote Location
Bridgton Academy is unusual in that it is the only independent school in the nation geared just to postgraduates. The only comparable schools are those operated by the United States military-service academies for their candidates who need improvement in some area.
The school, established in 1808, dropped its lower high-school grades in the 1960's to focus on postgraduates.
Besides the normal four-course academic load and the required study period, Bridgton students must take part in an after-school ac tivity, such as varsity sports or the yearbook.
Bridgton is located on 50 acres in the foothills of the White Mountains in southern Maine, about an hour from Portland. The remote location leaves students with little to do but study during the week. They may keep cars on campus, but only for use on weekends.
The school's facilities are comfort able, but modest in comparison with those of many larger New England boarding schools. For example, Lembers of the school's ice hockey team must take shovels in handLafter winter storms to clear snow from Bridgton's outdoor hockey rink.
Bridgton draws about half of its students from Massachusetts and most of the rest from the other New England states, but students from as far away as Oregon also enroll.
"There are many reasons why stu dents end up here," said James J. Young 3rd, the headmaster. "For many, they are looking for a year of maturity and a year of academic de velopment." Some, but not all, are looking to improve their grades and college en trance-test scores in the hope of get ting admitted to a better college. Others need a prerequisite for a spe cific academic program.
Virtually all, said Mr. Young, "need the opportunity to take an active role in their learning experience."Added David N. Hursty, the assis tant headmaster: "The biggest ob stacle they have to overcome is the passive learning environment they come from." Few students at Bridgton are as piring to the Ivy League or other highly selective institutions. Their choices tend more toward middle- ranked institutions like the Univer sity of Maine and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
One benefit of their year at the private academy is that most stu dents probably get more intensive college counseling than they received in their high schools, which for most postgraduates was a public school. The college selection process starts early in the school year, and each student here is assigned to one of five counselors.
"Often, it isn't necessarily that you are going to get into a better college, but more importantly, the student will probably be more successful in college," said Mr. Hursty.
Value of 'Structure'
David Zimmerman, 18, from Columbus, Ohio, is among the several dozen students in recent years who have come to Bridgton after not quite making it into the U.S. Naval Academy.
"I was recruited for lacrosse, but I have to boost my studies," he said. He is one of about 100 postgraduate students sponsored each year in private prep schools by the U.S. Naval Academy Foundation. Bridgton gets about three to six such students annually. The Naval Academy places a number of other 13th-year students at its own preparatory school in Rhode Island.
If the foundation-sponsored students enroll in postgraduate programs and get A's or B's in classwork and meet other obligations, "they have about a 95 percent chance of entering the Naval Academy the next year," said retired Capt. J. William Flight, the executive director of the foundation and a former recruiter at the academy.
"The academic programs are outstanding in these prep schools," he added. "The students have an opportunity to grow, but the structure of the programs keeps them in line. Bridgton officials proudly point out that 100 percent of the students referred by the foundation have later been accepted into the Naval Academy.
Women would be accepted as day students at Bridgton, but few apply, according to school officials, and the school is currently all-male.
Nationwide, the postgraduate option is one chosen overwhelmingly by males. At nais-member schools, 86 percent of postgraduates are young men.
That statistic may reflect the fact that postgraduate programs at many schools still tend to attract many athletes. In fact, some schools have been accused of using the pro grams to woo sports talent to their teams.
"For too many people, postgradu ate equals athlete, and that is very unfair," said Mr. Curry of Cushing Academy.
Some traditional schools have de cided to limit the number of post graduates who can play on their teams, while a few state governing bodies for high-school athletics have also adopted rules about their eligi bility.
At Bridgton, teams in contact sports like football and ice hockey mostly play junior-varsity teams from colleges in the region.
Bridgton officials say they would naturally like to see more students consider a 13th year of precollegiate education. But, since most of the boarding schools that offer the op tion are in the Northeast, Bridgton is competing with other prep schools and with colleges for a declining number of 18-year-olds.
"We have to expand our outreach," said Mr. Young, the head master. "It is a matter of us articu lating to other geographic regions that this is somewhere a student can come and get all the pieces.