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Early College: What and Why by Patricia Sharpe

Each month, the Newsroom publishes commentary by the leadership at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. This ongoing series, called Perspectives, is one way in which the College adds its voice to important conversations in higher education.

For the 2008-2009 year, Perspectives will address different aspects of the early college movement. All of these pieces draw from—and reflect on—the accumulated knowledge of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, founded in 1966 as the nation’s first early college. Since that time, interest in early college has blossomed. Hundreds of early college programs now exist—serving diverse needs through a variety of program structures in an array of settings. Within this vibrant landscape, Simon’s Rock remains not only the pioneering institution, but the nation’s only college of liberal arts and sciences expressly designed to educate students early. This is the unique, time-tested perspective that Simon’s Rock brings.

Excerpt from “Early College:  What and Why,” by Patricia Sharpe, Chapter 8 of Time for Change:  New Visions for High School, Robert W. Smith, ed., Cresskill, New Jersey:  Hampton Press, 2007

…In 2002, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation launched the Early College High School Initiative with support from Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The plan was to establish 150 Early College High Schools across the country by 20II, enrolling 60,000 students; 46 had already opened in the first two years of the initiative, enrolling 6,533 students in 19 states. These small, autonomous schools are designed to enable all students to achieve two years of college credit while they are earning a high school diploma (within 4-5 years of entering ninth grade). The design and theme of the schools vary; some emphasize science or technology; some are charter schools, while others are regular public schools; some partner with community college, while others collaborate with a public state university or a private liberal arts college.

Two existing models directly inspired this initiative: Bard High School Early College, established in 2001, and Middle College High School at LaGuardia Community College, established in 1973-1974.  Both were visited in 2001 by representatives of the Gates Foundation.  Already committed to high school reform and support for small schools, The Gates Foundation became convinced that creating early college opportunities would enhance their efforts to increase the college attendance and completion rates of traditionally underserved students.  Interestingly, the two schools that recently served as direct models for the Gates initiative, both urban public institutions, took their inspiration from Simon's Rock.

I joined the Simon's Rock faculty in Languages and Literature in 1983 and became Dean of Academic Affairs of the college in 1993. Because of that experience with early college, I was one of three people with ties to Bard College asked to work with representatives of the New York City Board of Education to found Bard High School Early College (BHSEC). As a strong believer in both the early college idea and in public education, I was delighted to have this opportunity to work with an inner-city population and help them discover how much they could accomplish when challenged.

These two schools differ in structure, population, and funding, demonstrating the reach of the underlying early college conception. What, one may well wonder, is the difference between a rigorous high school course and a college course? According to Jack Meiland, philosophy professor and former director of the honors program at the University of Michigan, it is the approach that makes the difference: “material is presented in college not as something to be believed on the basis of authority, but as something to be believed because such belief is rationally justified and can be rationally defended. Thus, much work in college – and, I would say, the work that is characteristic of college – deals with the rational justification of belief”.

Fifteen and sixteen-year-olds are not merely capable of responding to such an approach:  they are ideally suited to it.  Questioning authority and the status quo is the work of middle adolescence.  An approach that encourages critical thinking, skepticism, and the rational justification of belief can engage students who would be alienated by material presented as absolutely and unchangingly true.  It is at 15 and 16, before vocational or professional training, indeed before students have found a clear direction, that they are most open to such an approach. They are ready to become acquainted with the range of human inquiry, to test their perceptions, abilities, limits, and interests. They need to discover their own views and to be expected to take adult responsibility for the views they hold in an atmosphere that fosters their capacity for considered judgment. Taking young people's ideas seriously, asking students to defend and see the consequences of their suggestions, positions, and interpretations in an atmosphere of rational interchange, is the essence of the early college idea…

Recent research on the development of the brain in adolescence offers further justification for creating early colleges, rather than simply integrating younger students into pre-existing structures and institutions. Although 15-and 16-year-olds may be intellectually prepared for the challenge, the ability to make responsible and well-reasoned decisions centers in areas of the brain that are not fully developed until age 20. Teachers and administrators working with younger college students need to create structures in which they are offered freedom of choice in a context that is safe – one that encourages them to deepen their awareness of possible consequences and impacts on others of their actions. Although high schools often feel bound to regulate students’ choices and behavior, in early college the aim is to help students develop self-restraint…

At Simon’s Rock, the affirmation of individualism is balanced with a strong sense of intellectual community; open engagement with all ideas and the willingness to entertain criticism do not preclude assiduous attention to core requirements and rules, including a college-wide attendance policy, weekly advisor meetings for first-year students, and strict policies on drug and alcohol use. Helping students learn to negotiate for themselves within a system of rules and deadlines, write a petition for exception or an appeal of an infraction notice, make a case for what they want, and understand and address the principles that guide the rules, are all important aspects of their maturation process.

While at Simon’s Rock, students move directly into early college, at Bard High School Early College students begin at ninth grade and move into early college after two years. It is this model that the Gates Early College High School Initiative has adopted. This is, in part, because their mission is not only to make higher education more accessible, affordable, and achievable by bridging the divide between high school and college, but also to encourage collegiate ambitions in traditionally underserved students. To that end, they instill awareness of the demands and rewards of college in students just beginning high school. An additional ambition of the Early College High School Initiative is to reach out to middle schools, providing extensive support and preparation for undertaking college work.

From the start, the early college program at BHSEC was informed by the Simon's Rock experience; the new challenge was to determine what curriculum and practices in 9th and 10th grades would most effectively prepare students for early college work. Unlike the middle college high schools, which simply enabled students to take  community college classes as they became capable of succeeding in them, BHSEC's ambition was to have all students move on from 10th grade to become first-year college students, taking a full program of college courses and completing requirements for the associate's degree in an additional two years. All faculty at BHSEC are asked to teach both high school and college classes as part of their on-going participation in the design of an integrated 4-year curriculum.  Teachers who came to that work from teaching older college students in traditional higher education settings needed to appreciate the particular challenges of working with this age group.  Many found that smaller classes with inquisitive and challenging students requires renewed attention to and willingness to explain and even rethink underlying assumptions.

The first class of students who began at BHSEC as ninth graders in September 2001 graduated with their A.A. degrees in June 2004. The first 97 graduates, those who entered the early college program after completing 10th grade at other schools, all successfully went on to 4-year colleges, many of them with junior status. The students in both of these classes were the courageous risk takers who decided to take a chance on a brand-new school   A similar group of pioneers began in Queens in 2008. As the faculties grow in their confidence and experience in preparing students for early college work, as laboratories are built and traditions established, these schools must also continue to treasure that spirit of experimentation that motivated these students, as it did the generations of students who have moved through Simon's Rock. Although early college has become a national movement, it must not lose the sense of intellectual adventure that is essential to its appeal.