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Don Tapscott

Creating an environment for student excellence

In a speech last week to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, President Barack Obama cited a Manhattan high school, Bard High School Early College, as one example of the type of innovation in education that should be encouraged across the country.

The Bard school was jointly created in June 2001 by the New York City Board of Education and Bard College. It is founded on the belief that many young people are ready and eager to do serious college work at age 16. It enables highly motivated students to move in four years from ninth grade through the first two years of college, earning the associate of arts (A.A.) degree as well as a high school diploma.

It is a public education institution, and no tuition is charged. The student body is diverse ethnically and economically.  There are about 500 students and the average student-to-teacher ration is 20:1.  Admission is based on the student’s academic record, teacher recommendations, writing and math assessments, and an interview.  Successful applicants typically have a minimum 86 percent grade average.  Evidence of ambition and intellectual curiosity is critical. Last year the school received roughly 4,000 applications for 135 available spaces.

In the Huffington Post today, Bard graduate Kesi Augustine, who is now a sophomore at Williams College, explained the benefits of the Bard approach.

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…

A few [students] 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…

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.

Obviously not every student could succeed at Bard.  But the lesson of the school is universally applicable: All students should be given the opportunity to perform to the best of their ability. In the President’s words, “There is no stronger weapon against inequality and no better path to opportunity than an education that can unlock a child’s God-given potential.”

Tags: Government, School/College


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