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Liberal Arts on the Lower East Side
Students leave 'Early College' with more than just a high school diploma

Sonia Laudi’s oldest daughter, Lina Canney, was set to begin her freshman year at her neighborhood high school in Brooklyn when a postcard arrived in the mail.

The mass mailing advertised the inaugural year of Bard High School Early College, a small public school run and funded collaboratively by the city’s Department of Education and Bard College. Canney applied to the new high school and was called in for an interview.

“She could just smell that this place was different,” Laudi recalled about her daughter’s 2001 interview. “They asked her questions about her thinking.”

Halfway through the summer, Canney decided to go to Bard High School Early College. Laudi was thrilled. “It’s kind of fun to see your 14-year-old challenge herself intellectually and go for the unknown,” Laudi said.

In the library at Bard High School Early College. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Bard High School Early College is now starting its seventh year. And in the hallways of its Lower East Side building, a love of learning is still palpable.

That is as it should be for a high school started by a 147-year-old liberal arts college.

Located just 90 miles north of New York City, in the Hudson River Valley, Bard College has an established history of bringing the rigors of college to high school-aged students. Since 1979, Bard has also run Simon’s Rock College, the nation’s only four-year college exclusively for academically advanced teens who have not graduated from high school.

Simon’s Rock is in the rural Berkshire hills of Massachusetts, and a few years ago Bard administrators began considering how to bring a similar opportunity to a diverse, urban student body.

“A lot of these kids have never heard of liberal arts,” said Raymond Peterson, the principal at Bard High School Early College.

The school draws its 540 students from all five boroughs, many traveling upwards of an hour in either direction. About 40 percent the student body is white, and Latinos and African-Americans each make up about 18 percent. Another 16 percent classify themselves as “other” and 11 percent are Asian.

Before taking the helm of this educational pilot program, Peterson was director of Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking. He had taught both at the high school and college levels, and was eager to bring the depth of college courses to urban high school students, many of whom he knew would thrive if given the chance to chart their own academic paths.

Art class at Bard High School Early College. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

“The premise of the school is that kids will stay engaged and not get bored if you engage them intellectually,” Peterson said.

Students at Bard High School Early College seem to have little chance to get bored, given the clip at which courses are taught. During their freshman and sophomore years, students learn what most city high schoolers learn in four years. By the end of 10th grade, Bard students have taken all the required state Regents exams.

But don’t mistake the school for a standard accelerated program. “We try to get them to study differently,” Peterson said, insisting that his school isn’t a traditional factory for the academically gifted.

That difference has everything to do with thinking and reasoning, and little to do with memorizing, said Martha Olson, the official liaison between the high school and Bard College.

Olson’s job is to uphold Bard’s academic standards at the high school. Having completed their state graduation requirements as sophomores, students in 11th and 12th grades take college-level seminars. They graduate, then, not only with the Regents diploma, but also with 60 credits and an associate degree from Bard College.

How many of those credits will transfer depends on the college students choose to attend after graduating.

A few weeks before graduation, Pablo Rosario wasn't sure how many credits his school of choice, Hunter College, would accept. The Upper West Side senior said he wasn’t too worried, though. Even if all 60 credits wouldn’t transfer, he knew that his four years at Bard High School Early College were worth the work.

“It gives me a head start in college,” Rosario said. “I want to get started right away on studying engineering.”

Because of the way Bard High School Early College is structured, most of the roughly 125 students who graduate each year could be done with college in two years. But parent Sonia Laudi said she doesn’t think most students go to this high school to truncate their college years.

“They’re looking for a quality high school,” she said.

A teacher goes over work in class. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

At Bard High School Early College, quality is measured in depth of thoughts.

Students who are accepted to the high school don’t necessarily have the highest scores on their written entrance exams. But they must show intellectual motivation and curiosity during the interview, according to Olson.

The school then spends four years developing each student’s curiosity. “They learn to take their intellectual life seriously,” Olson said.

It’s a lesson that Laudi hopes will stay with her daughter for years to come. When she went on to Bard College, Lina Canney decided to major in creative writing. She finished her degree requirements within two years. Now starting her third year of college, Lina plans to enroll in a variety of courses that have nothing to do with creative writing. She plans to enroll in them just because she loves to learn.

— Michal Lumsden



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