Early Risers

By Chistina Asquith — August 01, 2002 9 min read
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At one New York City high , it takes students two years—and lots of hard work—to start college.

Time is on Cynthia Mothersil’s side. The bubbly 16-year-old from Coney Island, New York, who favors gold hoop earrings and braided hair, hopes one day to become an OB-GYN. It’s a goal that will launch her on a lengthy educational journey, requiring many years of study and financial sacrifice. But last September, her path got a little bit shorter.

That’s because Cynthia enrolled at Bard High Early College, the first public in the country to offer a free, full-time college curriculum—and all the credits that go with it—to high ers. In Bard’s four-year program, students race through high requirements in 9th and 10th grades, then take college courses in 11th and 12th grades. A student who graduates from this hybrid institution receives an associate of arts degree and has enough credits to enter a four-year college as a junior.

Cynthia says the college-level studies she’s engaged in at Bard Early College are a welcome change from the less rigorous curriculum at her previous . “The teachers in my public didn’t prepare me for the work I’m doing now, so how would they have prepared me for med ?” she asks.

Cynthia is not alone in seeking a shorter path to college and career. When Bard Early College opened in September2001, some 1,700 applications poured in for its initial 260 spots. Many of the students who entered the transferred from top high s. Harry Calhoun, a 16-year-old who left the selective Connecticut boarding Hotchkiss, was drawn by the prospect of generating free time for himself before college. “I’ll probably use it to take a year off and do an internship,” he says.

Student Cynthia Mothersil, visiting Bard Early College’s New Home, is seeking the shortest path to a medical career.
—Emile Wamsteker

Junior Isatu Jalloh transferred from Brooklyn College Academy, one of New York City’s most competitive public institutions, in large part to save money, she explained in June. Her family fled civil war in Sierra Leone several years ago; her dad now works as a deliveryman, and her mom is a nurse. One year of medical will eat up her parents’ salaries, explained Isatu, who was willing to ride two hours by bus and subway to get to Bard Early College’s building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, last year. (This summer, the moved to its new home in Manhattan.) “I want to be a doctor, and that takes 10 years,” she noted. “This saves me two years of that.”

In March, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pledged $40million to start 70 early colleges nationwide, many of which will look to Bard Early College as a model. This means that within the next five years, thousands of students will be starting college at 16, chipping away at the structure of a century-old system of ing.

And why not, asks Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, the liberal arts institution that’s running the new high in conjunction with the New York City Board of Education. Botstein himself stuck around high only through his sophomore year before heading off to the University of Chicago at 16. Half a century later, he’s one of the most outspoken proponents of condensing the high experience, arguing that spending four years at the secondary level is a waste of time for many and that students’ boredom is at the root of national problems such as high dropout rates.

“High s can’t maintain the attention span of students, and then we blame them for not staying in a dilapidated that’s not safe, and the teachers have no morale,” Botstein says on his cell phone as he shuttles from the Bard College campus in Annandale- on-Hudson to New York City, a drive he makes several times a week. “We call the students dropouts. We are failing them.”

The college president also blames prolonged high stays for violence. In 1999, he penned a New York Times opinion piece linking the shootings at Columbine High in Colorado, to the artificial, popularity-driven culture bred by the typical insular high structure. “Most thoughtful young people suffer the high environment in silence and, in their junior and senior years, mark time waiting for college to begin,” he wrote. “The Littleton killers, above and beyond the psychological demons that drove them to violence, felt trapped in the artificiality of the high world and believed it to be real.”

‘We call the students dropouts. We are failing them.’

Leon Botstein,
Bard College

Four years of high is unnecessary, Botstein argued in his 1997 book, Jefferson’s Children, because kids now are more mature than children who lived 100 years ago, when the high model was devised. Modern students should be exposed to a more demanding, adultlike environment earlier, he wrote, but they’re held back by tradition. “The ethos of the current high structure infantilizes the students and doesn’t take them seriously,” he claims today.

Since 1979, Bard has managed a private boarding —Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, Massachusetts—where high ers pursue college degrees, but for years Botstein also wanted to open a public institution. His chance came in the spring of 2001 in a meeting with New York City s chancellor Harold Levy, when he found that the two shared ideas about experimenting with public s and exposing children to high-level work early.

The New York City Board of Education agreed to fund a combination high /early college, giving the institution $900,000, or about $2,500 per student, with Bard College adding money to cover additional costs. (Bard’s contribution, which includes supplementing teachers’ salaries to attract doctorate-holding professors, comes to about $1,400 per student.) Less than six months after the meeting, Bard Early College opened with 9th and 11th grade classes. This fall, the is adding 10th and 12th grades and 15 more teachers.

On a sunny morning last May, the atmosphere in the hallways at Bard Early College was quiet and professional. No bell urged kids to class; no walkie-talkie-wielding assistant principal reprimanded students; no loudspeaker blared announcements. Students, displaying the motivation and maturity that got them into the , moved from class to class with little commotion and during free periods, studied together for tests.

Shortly after 9 a.m., English professor Thomas Martin walked into a classroom of 11 juniors and dropped Hamlet onto a round conference table. “Can we clear the decks please?” he asked airily, waving to the book bags piled in front of the sleepy students. “Let us turn to Shakespeare.”

Martin runs his classes exactly as he did at the University of Tulsa, where he was a professor for more than a decade.

Martin runs his classes exactly as he did at the University of Tulsa, where he was a professor for more than a decade. Just as in college, he didn’t stop class or ask for a note when a heavy-lidded boy walked in late. Students carried most of the discussion over the next 50 minutes, dissecting character motivation and plot themes. Occasionally Martin leaned back into his chair and pushed students to take their thoughts further: “Yes, yes, what’s going to happen here?” At the end of class, he assigned homework: five to 10 pages of reading.

At the , 9th graders follow a curriculum geared toward preparing them for the New York State Regents examinations, including English, global studies, math, science, and Chinese, Latin, or Spanish. Juniors take four college-level courses. A humanities seminar introduces them to both university-style writing and works by significant authors, including Plato, Dante, and Shakespeare. Depending on their skills, students are placed in physics, finite mathematics, pre-calculus, or calculus. A language and an elective round out their studies; in 2001-02, students chose one of nine courses, ranging from African history to a literature seminar on Marcel Proust.

With challenging courses and about four hours of homework a night, the program is not easy. Botstein acknowledges that the work is difficult, but the provides tutoring, and, he says, the rest of the learning gap, if any, has to be made up with sheer drive. Unfortunately, drive is not enough for every student. Isatu, a top student at her previous , earned C’s at Bard Early College. When she began to struggle, she switched into easier classes in an attempt to improve her grades and remained committed to toughing it out. “That’s how it is,” she said in June, stoically assessing her progress. “That was high . Here we have college-level work.” Over the summer, though, she decided the shorter route was too tough and won’t be re-enrolling this fall.

With challenging courses and about four hours of homework a night, the program is not easy.

In fact, roughly 15 percent of Bard Early College’s first class dropped out by the end of this past year. Principal Ray Peterson says many of the students who left had been unprepared for the workload and went back to traditional four-year high s. “It means we need to be more careful in admissions, and we need to explain carefully to students and parents what’s involved in adapting to this program,” he explains. “I think we’ve been more vigilant in interviews this year.”

And many kids apparently are up to the challenge. Cynthia Mothersil’s mother, Marie Sandaire-Jasmin, says her daughter is thriving on the experience. “She’s a different person now,” Sandaire-Jasmin notes. “She takes life more seriously.” Cynthia is motivated by the ‘s emphasis on preparing for the future, according to her mom: “At her last , she didn’t have any idea what was out there. At this , the director helps students find out what they want to do.”

“There are some students who have problems and maybe shouldn’t be here,” observes professor Martin. “But they’re in the minority.” In fact, he says, some of his high scholars are more advanced than his college students were.

For the most part, teachers are happy at Bard Early College. Of the 25 hired initially—15 with doctorates—only one left during the year. (Another transferred to Simon’s Rock at the end of the year as part of a prearranged plan.) One source of frustration, however, has been the New York state requirement that every public educator hold an official teaching certificate. It means that many of the professors have had to enroll in night or summer classes to earn certification, despite multiple degrees and decades of experience.

The teachers say they’re intrigued by the early college philosophy and want to work with highly motivated young people. Notes Martin, “It’s exciting to try and do something different in the public system.”

“In New York state, the emphasis is always on the children in the lower end, and the children in the higher spectrum were being ignored,” math professor Ved Shravah observes. “Twelfth grade is a waste of time for the children at the top level. This is for them.”

Botstein’s hope for Bard Early College is that it will demonstrate how to give students a challenging experience in high . “I would never claim that this helps the unmotivated child,” he says. “Will it help someone who cannot learn higher math skills? No. Will it help someone with extremely limited cognitive intelligence ability? No. This is no miracle cure. But there is a group that can achieve a higher educational level than what is happening now.”


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