College & Workforce Readiness

Classic Rock

By Edgar Allen Beem — November 10, 2004 15 min read
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On an unseasonably warm September afternoon in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, 14 Simon’s Rock College freshmen are seated around the large bank of tables that dominates the center of the classroom where Dean of Academic Affairs Patricia Sharpe is conducting her first-year seminar. Held inside of one of several hip-roofed 1970s buildings that remind students of Pizza Hut, the classroom itself is remarkably unadorned—just bare walls, windows, and an unused blackboard. The only color is provided by the exchange of ideas.

The seminar’s theme is the relationship of the individual and society, and the students have been reading Sophocles’ Oedipus cycle and studying Freudian theories of the unconscious. It’s late in the day, the temperature’s hovering around 80, and at first Sharpe has a hard time drawing the students—a motley crew of dreadlocked, hennaed, pierced, tank-topped, and T-shirted teens—into the discussion.

“Humans make meanings for themselves of which they have no direct, immediate awareness,” says the mop-haired, motherly Sharpe. “What’s that like in Sophocles?” She looks at a slender young man wearing a faded T-shirt with the words “burnout fuel” stenciled on the front.

“I don’t know,” he admits. “I’m confused.”

After Sharpe links the unconscious to the act of writing, “as an instrument for figuring out what you believe,” the discussion takes a turn for the better. “I don’t believe in a direct correlation between desires and dreams,” blurts out one student. “Everything in Freud is about sexual context,” adds another. As the students come alive with opinions of their own, Sharpe repeatedly resorts to what can only be described as hooting (“Oo-oo!”) to regain their attention. But they continue to toss around ideas—about motivation, free will, patriarchy, and democracy—as though they were Frisbees and Hacky Sacks.

Rachel Zimmerman, who turned 16 shortly after arriving at Simon's Rock, says her experiences at a North Carolina school were good but "only as challenging as high school can be."

The only thing unusual about this seminar is that the students would still be in high school were they not at Simon’s Rock, the only four-year residential liberal arts college in the country designed specifically for high-school-age kids. When Simon’s Rock opened its doors in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1966, early college was a radical idea. But as educators have recognized that teenagers progress at different rates, both academically and emotionally, the concept is becoming increasingly mainstream. During the past two years, 48 early-college high schools have opened in 18 states and the District of Columbia, prompted by more than $40 million in initial grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other charitable organizations. While the brunt of these new programs are targeted at poor students in urban districts, what’s known collectively as the Early College High School Initiative draws considerable inspiration from Simon’s Rock, even though it’s a tony private school where tuition and other expenses top $38,000 annually.

“Though designed for different groups of students, ... [both] are based on the premise that adolescents can engage with serious ideas and big philosophical questions, as well as with demanding technical education, at an earlier age,” says the initiative’s director, Nancy Hoffman. Her nonprofit group manages startup costs and planning for the new programs and includes among a list of goals on its Web site its intention to eliminate “time wasted during the junior and senior years of high school.”

Given such statements, it’s hardly surprising that the concept has taken decades to catch on, argues Bernard Rodgers, a former dean of Simon’s Rock. Public schools have been slow to embrace partnerships like the early-college initiative, possibly because they have been “afraid of what it says about their school if students have to go elsewhere to be served,” he says. Yet Rodgers insists that regardless of the setting, “students are capable of undertaking more serious work at a younger age than we allow them to do.”

And at Simon’s Rock, where high-school-age kids have been going to college for nearly 40 years, the examples of that are numerous.

Rachel Zimmerman’s 16th birthday was only a few weeks after she arrived at Simon’s Rock in September. The student who observed that everything in Freud’s work is about sex, she is both the youngest and the most outspoken teenager in Sharpe’s seminar. She’s also the baby in a family of academics. Both of her parents teach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where a brother and sister are students. Rachel’s former school, East Chapel Hill High, was good, but it was “only as challenging as high school can be,” she says. By the time her sophomore year ended, she was ready to move on. She first looked into a math-science magnet school, but when Simon’s Rock offered her a full scholarship, Rachel decided she was ready for college at 15. And she’s glad she switched.

“The difference between Simon’s Rock and high school,” she explains, “is that high school makes things more difficult by giving you more to do; college makes things more difficult by giving you more to think about. When you’re around people who are all doing well in school, you do better. End of story.”

Simon’s Rock officials have never developed a profile of a successful early-college candidate, but Sharpe offers an observation based on her 21 years at the school that echoes Rachel’s experience. “It’s not completely predictable,” she says, “but one population seems to be the babies of families. They have older siblings who have gone off to college. They see that leaving is what’s supposed to happen, and they start wondering, ‘Why am I still here?’ ”

The notion that the traditional high school setting no longer works for all students has gained greater currency in recent years and helped spark the recent growth in early-college programs.

Kids who stick it out through the end of high school, in fact, are rare among Simon’s Rock’s student body of 390, which includes only a handful of transfer and continuing ed students. The college—which occupies a wooded hillside where the family of founder Elizabeth Blodgett Hall, a headmistress of Concord Academy, once maintained a summer cottage and dairy farm—admits 60 percent of its students following their sophomore year in high school. An additional 30 percent arrive after their junior year, and a few come to Simon’s Rock after their freshman year. One of the youngest students ever admitted was 11-year-old Seamus Farrow, son of actress Mia Farrow and film director Woody Allen; other well-known “Rockers,” as they’re known on campus, include filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen and Eli Pariser, executive director of’s political action committee.

Simon’s Rock receives close to 6,000 inquiries a year, but once school officials explain that it’s not a place for kids with behavioral disorders or learning disabilities, only about 300 begin the application process, according to Leslie Davidson, the dean of admission and student affairs. Between 200 and 250 teenagers ultimately compete for 160 openings in each new class. The popular school guidebook Cool Colleges calls Simon’s Rock a “prep college” because it grants associate’s degrees after two years. At that point, two-thirds of its students transfer to other colleges while the rest stay at Simon’s Rock for another two years to earn bachelor’s degrees. Simon’s Rock is decidedly not a prep school, though, and it’s not just the price tag that marks the difference. It offers only college-level courses taught by college-level faculty, and from a social standpoint, says Rodgers, the former dean, “we offer more structure than most colleges, but less structure than most high schools.”

By “more structure,” Rodgers means that adult residence directors staff the dorms, mandatory adviser meetings are held for first-year students, and no one other than residents are allowed in first-year dorms after midnight. And with just 390 students, it’s hard to get lost in the crowd.

‘Where’s Heidi?” asks psychology Professor Anne O’Dwyer, a PhD who’s taught at Simon’s Rock since 1997. She’s a bundle of nervous energy as she sips Diet Pepsi and begins a lesson on sensory perception. Heidi Sistare, an 18-year-old sophomore from Connecticut, is a well-known and popular Rocker. She’s a good student, a hard worker, and a resident assistant in the Crosby freshman dorm. It’s not like her to miss a class.

The other students, still sleepy during the Friday morning class, perk up a bit when O’Dwyer’s discourse on the mechanics of sight and sound touch on matters of interest—how pheromones act as sexual attractors, how menstrual cycles become synchronized when women live together, and why your ears ring after a rock concert. After O’Dwyer returns the previous week’s exams and dismisses the class, she steps into the hallway to call Heidi. “Her voice mail picked up immediately,” O’Dwyer says, “so she must be on the phone. I wonder if something is wrong.”

Within an hour, both the dean of student affairs and Heidi’s residence director are aware that she missed her morning classes. It turns out she’s been on the phone all that time dealing with a family problem back home. Far from finding such attention intrusive, Heidi, a bright young woman with sparkling brown eyes and a discreetly pierced nose, says, “I really appreciate the support you get here. I find it helpful, not restrictive.”

Heidi attended Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia from kindergarten through 7th grade. She then spent 8th grade at a public middle school and completed her freshman year and half of her sophomore year at Westminster School, the Simsbury, Connecticut, prep school where her father, Bill, is dean of students. A straight-A student, Heidi discovered that after years of Quaker school education, “I didn’t quite fit into the prep school culture.” Her desire to do a community service project, for instance, clashed with Westminster’s mandatory sports participation. And when she took AP English, she found it hard to accept a school tradition allowing only seniors to speak in class.

Seeking greater independence, “Heidi homeschooled herself” during junior year, according to her father, taking a couple of online courses and attending classes at Saint Joseph College in West Hartford. But she missed the classroom discipline, so when one of her father’s Westminster colleagues suggested Simon’s Rock, Heidi jumped at the chance.

“There were a few eyebrows raised” when Sistare’s daughter dropped out and then headed to college at 16, the dean acknowledges. But, he says, “from our perspective, it’s been a good fit.”

Rodgers argues that Heidi’s situation mirrors those of other students attracted to early college. “In most high schools, the student culture is fundamentally anti-intellectual,” he says. “We have two kinds of students at Simon’s Rock—80 percent are very bright students with excellent PSAT and SAT scores who have exhausted their high schools. The other 20 percent are also very bright students who have been turned off by high school and are not performing up to their abilities.”

The notion that the traditional high school setting no longer works for all students has gained greater currency in recent years and helped spark the recent growth in early-college programs. One of the findings in a 2001 report by the National Commission on the High School Senior Year, sponsored in part by the U.S. Department of Education, is that the final year can be a waste of time for many students, who by then are focused on getting into college. Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, went further in his polemical 1997 book Jefferson’s Children, stating bluntly that “the American high school is obsolete.”

Botstein, who enrolled at the University of Chicago at age 16 and then became the youngest college president in American history when he was named to lead the now-defunct Franconia College at age 23, recommends in Jefferson’s Children that students graduate from high school after two years, then take two years of college leading to an associate’s degree. Under his leadership, Bard College has embraced the early-college movement head-on. In 1979, Simon’s Rock became a division of Bard, located in nearby Annandale-on-Hudson, New York (the school’s full name now is Simon’s Rock College of Bard). And in 2001, he helped launch Bard High School Early College in New York City—a joint venture between the college and the city’s board of education—which became a forerunner of the Early College High School Initiative launched the following year.

Nearly two-thirds of Simon's Rock students arrive after their sophomore year in high school, a few after finishing 9th grade.

The movement now has the backers to match its bold approach. The Gates Foundation, in partnership with the Carnegie Corporation and the Ford and W.K. Kellogg foundations, has pledged a combined $85 million toward the creation of 150 early-college high schools by the year 2011. The 48 early-college high schools that have opened since 2002 already serve more than 6,500 students from groups typically underrepresented at the college level, according to Jobs for the Future, the Boston nonprofit coordinating the Early College High School Initiative for the charitable organizations funding it. Most, if not all, of the new schools represent partnerships between public school systems and nearby colleges, and they compress a high school curriculum into two years to allow students to earn associate’s degrees in the following two years, at which point they can transfer to a four-year college and complete their bachelor’s degrees.

Given the Simon’s Rock “prep college” moniker, the irony behind the movement it has inspired is that early college may actually be of more benefit to the less-affluent, lower-achieving students targeted by the newer programs. “Acceleration was always for gifted kids,” Hoffman says. “Now we’re trying it with kids it was not directed at in the past. They tend to be kids with huge responsibilities. Traditional high schools can be very infantilizing for students who are working, taking care of themselves, and taking care of other kids.”

The philosophy behind early college also informs the choice of teachers at Simon’s Rock. Most of its 37 full-time faculty members, as well as part-time and adjunct professors, hold PhDs in their respective fields. And, in keeping with Botstein’s injunction in Jefferson’s Children that “there should be no BA degree with a major in education,” the Simon’s Rock faculty are all subject specialists. “Highly qualified faculty are better than less-qualified faculty,” Rodgers says matter-of-factly. “The more you know about your subject, the better able you are to teach it.”

Since writing across the curriculum is a major emphasis of a Simon’s Rock education—every graduate writes a book-length senior thesis, the bound volumes of which take up an entire wall in the library—incoming faculty members participate in a weeklong Writing and Thinking Workshop that kicks off each academic year. Beyond that, there is no formal preparation for teaching at Simon’s Rock. Many prospective faculty members, however, get weeded out during the interview process.

“We ask them to come give an interactive class, and they can’t do it,” Sharpe explains. “Very good people come here and blow it. It’s all about preparing teachers to be challenged in ways they’re not used to.” In fact, Sharpe takes pride in describing the students as “feisty.” “The most middle-of-the-road student here,” she says, “is someone who stepped out of the pattern early in life.”

Emma Rood, a 19-year-old senior from Portland, Oregon, stepped out of line particularly early, even by Simon’s Rock standards. She says she’d wanted to go to college ever since she knew what college was—“I was 6,” she recalls. Wearing baggy clothes, leather boots, and a grimy University of Toronto cap pulled down over her cropped hair, Rood has a vaguely militant look about her. But in fact, she’s one of the school’s most popular students, friendly and well-known to everyone on campus because she works part time operating the Simon’s Rock switchboard.

Rood came to Simon’s Rock four years ago as a 15-year-old following two years at Portland’s Wilson High School, which was “OK,” she says. “But at the same time, I believe it was a waste of my time academically, and particularly socially.” Her twin sister, Kate, is a sophomore at nearby Smith College; back then, “people liked her,” Rood says. “I was just different.”

While exercising the early-college option usually means that students miss out on such symbolic high school events as proms and graduation, finishing college a year or two ahead of your peers can be more problematic.

Openly gay since high school, Rood says she found a climate of tolerance and acceptance at Simon’s Rock that was missing back home. “Since most of us had issues in high school,” she says, “we don’t want to become like the judgmental people who plagued us. People are willing to engage here.”

Gay students not only find a more-accepting culture at Simon’s Rock; they’re also able to engage in the study of gay culture itself. This semester, Rood is taking a course on contemporary gay literature of China. John Weinstein, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard University with a PhD from Columbia University, is teaching “Emperors, Samurai, and the Men Who Love Them,” a decidedly un-high-school-like course, to a baker’s dozen of teenagers. An authority on East Asian theater, Weinstein is a clean-cut, well-dressed young man who sips Dasani water as he leads Rood and her fellow students through a wide-ranging discussion of the aesthetics and social politics of several Asian films and short stories. “Is the study of female homosexuality different than the study of male homosexuality?” he asks at one point.

“I have one word for you,” Rood replies, “and it’s ‘sexism.’ ” She will earn a BA in linguistics at the end of the school year and intends to pursue a PhD, but not right away. She plans to take a couple of years off, she says, because she’s not sure she wants to be the only 19-year-old in a doctoral program.

In this delaying tactic, Rood is not alone. While exercising the early-college option usually means that students miss out on such symbolic high school events as proms and graduation, finishing college a year or two ahead of your peers can be more problematic. Many who go on to graduate school wait a year or more for their peers to catch up, Rodgers says. But such delays take nothing away from the benefits of starting college early, the former dean insists. “The point here is not speed. There is no value in going faster. The point here is to go better.”

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