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Model High School

Kesi Augustine ’12 writes about her experience studying at Bard High School Early College. Bard is an NYC high school recognized by President Obama in his speech to the NAACP last week for its innovative approach which challenges students to complete high school and earn a free associate’s degree or college credit in just four years:

Because my fellow students and I were able to earn this Associate’s degree from Bard College, many of us saved money by entering college as sophomores and juniors. For others, the degree represented an opportunity to double major, or to skip intro and survey courses often required by many four-year courses.

The most rewarding part of my experience at BHSEC, however, was more than just the Associate’s degree. The school introduced me to critical thinking and writing about my place in the world. Our teachers did not give us the recipe for performing well on state-wide tests and SATs, although we performed well in that respect, too. Rather, our small classes thrived on student energy in open seminar discussions and debates about course material. The challenge, as President Obama called for in his speech, never ended. No one could be successful in Bard by slumping in a seat.

The typical night of homework included musing over the implications of W.E.B. DuBois’ theory of double consciousness, calculating anti-derivatives, and writing about the similarities between Toni Morrison and William Faulkner. During our junior and senior years, the professors expected everyone to read works by writers like Sophocles, Plato, Dante, Darwin, Marx, and Kafka. Those texts were our repertoire–we discussed them together and wrote about their relevance during their time period as well as our own. After taking a contemporary architecture class, my friends and I would walk the streets of Manhattan and jokingly remark, “That is so post-modern.”

Not every student could learn this way. A few dropped out over the four years despite the supportive network of teachers and faculty available. However, those students did not cop out. BHSEC was emotionally demanding. Those students simply realized that their destiny was in their own hands, as Obama said, and that BHSEC’s accelerated method of learning, while it stimulates the mind, requires a sense of maturity some teenagers do not yet have while in high school.

If we are going to strive for the educational equality Obama calls for, every American student should have the education I did. I was more than prepared for success in “real” college, largely owed to what I learned at BHSEC. As a rising sophomore at Williams College, I frequently refer back to my seminar experience at Bard. During my freshman year at Williams, I was not perfect, yet I knew how to approach reading a novel a week, how to write a formal 10-page paper, and how to ask for help when I needed it. I had professors from high school I could ask for advice. I was confident in my ability to survive a difficult class. In contrast, few of my new college friends had this advantage. Students at Williams have often said, “In high school, I didn’t even have to think. Now, it’s all about thinking. I don’t know if I even trust myself to come up with something good.” I wonder how much better they would feel about their schoolwork–and their selves–if their high schools had encouraged independent thinking and critical analysis as Bard did.

BHSEC students come from the five boroughs of New York City, from both high and low income families. They are the children of immigrants from all over the world. They identify as Christians, Muslims, Jews and atheists. They are hipsters, athletes, artists, musicians, liberals, conservatives, and, most importantly, eager students. My experience at BHSEC taught me that our similarities outweigh our differences. A Muslim and a Christian can be best friends. A gay and a straight can both believe in finding true love. A Latino and an African American can joke with each other about the stereotypes that exist in their communities. My friend Naim taught me to live my Christian beliefs, no matter how hard they are to follow, as he fasted during Ramadan. My best group of girlfriends and I proudly called ourselves “the birds,” a play on the slang term “bird” for a minority girl who embodies the stereotypes of loudness and ignorance. We were from these same minority neighborhoods, yet attended one of the best schools in New York City.

While the nation still struggles with issues of race– we hear about segregated proms in Mississippi and about African American children turned away from a private swimming pools in Philadelphia–BHSEC students considered our differences a means of learning from one another. During my senior year at high school, an Asian peer told me that I “smell Black.” Her comment opened up a discussion between the two of us and a school counselor about approaching one another. She apologized and said, “I didn’t even know you would take it that way.” We became friends. Without a non-confrontational discussion, neither of us would have understood our intentions. To me, President Obama’s support for BHSEC means he also supports these same approaches to racial issues among adolescents.

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#1 Comment By David On July 28, 2009 @ 3:24 pm

1) Great article.

2) Some of the analysis seems naive. Bard is just not some random city high school. It had around 4,000 applicants for just 135 spots. It takes the cream of the crop.

Our teachers did not give us the recipe for performing well on state-wide tests and SATs, although we performed well in that respect, too.

No kidding. If you take the 135 best test-taking students out of 4,000 then (whatever their colors), they will do great on any subsequent standardized tests.

In contrast, few of my new college friends had this advantage. Students at Williams have often said, “In high school, I didn’t even have to think. Now, it’s all about thinking. I don’t know if I even trust myself to come up with something good.” I wonder how much better they would feel about their schoolwork–and their selves–if their high schools had encouraged independent thinking and critical analysis as Bard did.

Indeed. One of the biggest differences at Williams is between students (like Augustine) who have superb high school educations (read: surrounded by smart peers and smart teachers) and those that don’t, including those like my Dad and me who just went to good public high schools. I was completely lost during my first few Williams papers because I had never done anything beyond the five paragraph essay. My Dad still tells stories about how much better prepared students from Deerfield were, back in the 50’s.

Now, there is no need to cry from suburban high school kids, but Ephs like Augustine need to recognize that what works with high IQ students at places like Bard would not work with average IQ students, much less below average IQ students.

3) I wonder if the Asian student has a different perspective on the story.

#2 Comment By Ben Fleming On July 28, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

A very nice article. The closing is also very well-put. While Bard’s strategy is obviously not something that can be replicated across all levels, there’s also nothing wrong with “a symbol for students’ critical engagement with their work.” That type of engagement doesn’t have to be (and usually can’t be, given most students’ limitations) program-wide — it can be a course here or there or a teacher or two; even if it’s just a glimpse of what lies ahead for those who are interested.

#3 Comment By Ronit On July 28, 2009 @ 3:47 pm

It’s very easy to coast through high school if you’re a smart student and your school doesn’t challenge you. I knew a disproportionate number of valedictorians who struggled mightily to adjust to Williams in freshman year.

#4 Comment By hwc On July 28, 2009 @ 4:01 pm

MOODY’S DOWNGRADES BARD COLLEGE’S SERIES 2007A-1 AND 2007A-2 BONDS AND SIMON’S ROCK COLLEGE OF BARD’S SERIES 2007 BONDS TO Baa1 FROM A3; OUTLOOK IS NEGATIVE

#5 Comment By JeffZ On July 28, 2009 @ 4:12 pm

Great article. Two Eph undergrads featured on Huff Post in the last few months, very impressive!

#6 Comment By Parent ’12 On July 28, 2009 @ 4:34 pm

Both of Bard’s unique high schools, the one in Manhattan & Simon’s Rock, can really save kids, who are not your typical student.

Ronit- Thanks for posting the link & part of the article. I believe there’s another ’12 who went to Bard. (I wonder if any of their college credits transferred to Williams.)

As a side note, the Manhattan campus is on the northern end of the Lower East Side, just south of Houston. My guess is that it’s a huge trek for most of the student body. I know of various families with teenagers who opted not to apply because of the logistics & travel time involved.

#7 Comment By Larry George On July 29, 2009 @ 5:45 am

“I knew a disproportionate number of valedictorians who struggled mightily to adjust to Williams in freshman year.”

And many schools, even top public schools and strong “preparatory” day schools, prepare their students for agendas other than Williams’s — to get by in large lecture courses, for technical or trade or professional schools, and so forth. Williams may excel at preparing students to succeed in an open-ended future, but not every place prepares students well for Williams. It can take a lot of getting used to. That, in itself, is a good thing, as it often builds flexibility and confidence.

#8 Comment By hwc On July 29, 2009 @ 9:56 am

Freshman retention rate
(fall 2007 first-year cohort returning fall 2008)

97%

Williams College Graduation rates
(fall 2002 first-year cohort)

78% 4-year
95% 5-year
96% 6-year