New York school leads effort to cure `senioritis'

Bard program takes students from 10th grade to college classes

September 09, 2001|By Evan Osnos | Evan Osnos,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK - A new public high school here has a pioneering cure for "senioritis," the academic "pox Americana" afflicting millions of restless and departing students: eliminate senior year altogether.

In fact, Bard High School Early College is scrapping 11th grade as well, jumping students from 10th grade straight to college classes on the same campus, and awarding them associate degrees when others their age are receiving high school diplomas.

`A lost opportunity'

New York school officials and education reformers are hailing the concept as a breakthrough in the growing effort to rethink the traditional American senior year. A study released this year and commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education called senior year for most students "a lost opportunity" that leaves them uninspired and ill-equipped for college.

Bard High School is run by the New York Board of Education and Bard College, which launched the idea at Simon's Rock College, a similar private program it runs in Massachusetts.

But unlike the Massachusetts program, the new public school is free, and located not on a leafy New England campus, but on the borrowed upper floor of a junior high school in Brooklyn. New York City is considering a second, similar project next fall.

Though he has no existing plans to expand it beyond the two schools, New York City Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy said the new approach makes a traditional system look obsolete.

"This is what high school is going to be," Levy said, after addressing students at the school's recent first day. "This is a marvelous experiment."

The same concerns about the value of senior year have spawned alternative high schools in many cities - complete with internships and specialized courses; some community colleges offer programs allowing high school students to earn college credit.

But these New York schools are believed to be the only efforts in the public system to eliminate 11th and 12th grades and award college degrees. The nearest thing to a precedent was a half-century ago, when University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins first allowed students to enroll after their sophomore year in high school. That effort, which placed high schoolers in classes with older students, faded largely by the 1960s.

By contrast, the 260 students at Bard High School study together in a single building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Enrollment is expected to double next year.

Bard and the board of education split costs. Teachers are paid by the board, which also covered nearly all of the $1.3 million in startup costs, officials said. Smaller classes and new materials have added $1,000 to $1,500 in extra costs per student per year compared with regular high school; Bard officials said those extra funds have been raised from donors.

9th-grade start

Students can begin Bard High School in 9th grade and receive an accelerated two years of high school before beginning college courses. Students then transfer to mainstream colleges for bachelor's degrees. Students at Bard High School ordinarily will not receive high school diplomas. Because colleges in some states require a diploma or the equivalent, Bard High School students may apply to New York State after their third year for an equivalency diploma, officials said.

For parents, it is two years without paying college tuition. For motivated students, it is a chance to hone interests and take more advanced coursework.

With paint barely dry on the walls, students arrived on opening day to face ice-breaker exercises on Plato's philosophy, and the poetry of Langston Hughes.

The school is not for everyone. Shibo Xu, 14, was one of only two students who showed up in his Staten Island neighborhood for a midsummer meeting to hear about the new school. But Xu was sold, giving up a local school for the prospect of a three-hour roundtrip daily commute from Staten Island to Brooklyn.

"I see it as a chance for small classes and one-on-one interaction with the teacher," said Xu, a lanky boy with spiked-hair and a baggy T-shirt. "You do not get that in a normal public school."

To John Shean, a former visiting professor at the University of Michigan, now teaching 9th-graders at the new school, it is "about treating students like adults rather than like children."

That is the mantra of Leon Botstein, the president of Bard, who himself enrolled in the University of Chicago at age 16 and engineered the new school to be more demanding than traditional school.

"We are leaving most students during their most crucial years of learning with an extremely low level of education and inspiration," he said. "This is designed to fix that."

In a preliminary report released in January, the National Commission on the High School Senior Year, made up of 30 educators, politicians, and administrators, cited high enrollment in college remedial classes as evidence of poor preparation.

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