Bringing College to High School at Scale
How do you equitably and effectively bring college to high school at scale so that more students are prepared to succeed? The birth of the Bard Sequence Program
Early college is a fast-growing movement in U.S. education, and Bard College has been at the forefront from the start. Over the past twenty years, Bard has established eight public early colleges in six states, pioneering a model through which public school students can earn up to an Associate’s degree and a high school diploma within a single campus, earning college credit, experience, and confidence at no cost to themselves or their families. From the establishment of the first Bard High School Early College (BHSEC)—now located in Manhattan, NY—the Bard Early College experience has been centered around a few signature elements, including “Writing and Thinking” pedagogy, discussion-based seminar classes, and Bard’s signature two-year interdisciplinary humanities sequence, known simply as “Seminar.”
Following years of strong postsecondary outcomes from the BHSECs, the Bard Sequence was born out of Bard’s desire to bring the experience of the BHSECs to more students beyond the Bard campuses. Bard is already serving more students in its early colleges than on its main campus, and there are only so many brick-and-mortar campuses the College can operate and sustain. Yet we know that the Bard brand of early college pedagogy offers a unique and effective approach that can benefit many more students than we can serve in our existing schools: rather than using an exam-based curriculum or asking students or professors to commute from their home campuses, we bring college to high school students, in an environment familiar to them, with instructors trained to teach in a liberal arts college, and with a focus on equity. As Bard’s tagline suggests, the Bard Sequence seeks to “bring college to high school,” and does so by codifying and packaging what we believe has made the Bard Early College experience so transformative, allowing it to be transported to schools beyond the Bard network.
EARLY COLLEGE ALCHEMY
The first step in exporting aspects of Bard’s early college model was to anatomize precisely what made the Bard experience so successful and special. This, we hypothesized, boiled down to three major factors:
- Finding, hiring, training, and retaining strong instructors with experience in higher education and a passion for working with younger students;
- Selecting and admitting students who show an enthusiasm and aptitude for accelerated, college-levelcoursework, particularly those who might otherwise be excluded from such opportunities according to traditional academic criteria; and
- Creating and revising a curriculum that reflects the core of the Bard “Seminar” humanities sequence and its commitments to liberal arts, a set of canonical texts that lay a foundation for future learning, and a writing- and discussion-based education, while also remaining adaptable and culturally responsive for diverse groups of students.
The intended outcome of all of this is for Bard students to gain access not just to “college learning” itself, but to a sense of agency and ownership over what that learning should be and a deep sense of belonging within a community invested in this dynamic, process-oriented intellectual endeavor.
The second step was to put this into practice. Through our partnership, we identified three pilot sites: the Urban Assembly School of Music and Art (UAMA) in Brooklyn, NY, Orange High School in Orange, NJ, and (starting in Spring 2020) the South Bronx Community Charter School (SBC) in the Bronx, NY. Rather than focusing on a single type of school, we looked for factors, such as administrative buy-in and student interest, that would allow the Bard program to thrive. We also sought to ensure that the opportunity was available to the students who need it most: in Bard’s view, those who are motivated and intellectually curious and yet statistically at risk of not completing college. Although the size and structure of Bard’s pilot partners vary widely, they share common factors, such as enrolling a large percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and nearly 100% of students who identify as people of color.
FINDING RESPONSIVE AND QUALIFIED INSTRUCTORS
For the Bard team, the easiest part of getting Sequence off the ground has been finding great instructors. With the current academic job market in flux, there are many talented instructors in the humanities who share a passion for teaching beyond traditional college campuses. A challenge, both in Sequence and at the BHSECs, has been finding those who are also galvanized to teach students who are motivated yet often uninitiated into the rigors and norms of college-level work. Sometimes these instructors come straight out of the Early College system itself—as was the case at UAMA, where we hired an instructor whose Bard pedigree includes both studying and teaching at a BHSEC—but we’re equally excited to bring in instructors with no direct experience of the Bard system or even of secondary teaching. To find those who are most attuned to students’ needs and quirks, Bard lets instructors meet the students themselves, asking them to present a sample lesson for a group of students and then hearing the students’ feedback on who they felt best connected with and engaged them. This process also reinforces for instructors and students alike the central tenet of the Bard Early College education: students are the agents of their own education.
IDENTIFYING MOTIVATED STUDENTS
Finding students who are ready to take on this sort of agency is the second piece of the puzzle. From their beginnings, the Bard Early Colleges and Sequence have asked the same questions: since the goal is not to simply “skim” the top tier of students who we know already have the tools to succeed in a college course, how do we select for students who are up for the challenge of early college education, yet whose academic promise may not be reflected in their record of grades or test scores? How do we measure for the sense of agency or motivation that will allow students to succeed even in cases where their skills or prior training lag behind the requirements of a college course?
Bard’s Sequence team decided to emulate the qualitative admissions model in place at the BHSECs by meeting with students in one-on-one interviews and asking them to participate in a sample discussion of Homer’s Odyssey. The Bard team knew this would be a useful way to get acquainted with the students, and they were impressed by how the process allowed students to step up to the challenge of representing themselves as proto-college students. In interviews, students reflected eloquently on why they wanted to be part of the course, and they commented on how they loved the open-endedness of seminar discussions. One young man who accidentally sat in on a sample seminar requested an interview afterwards because he enjoyed it so much. Already, through this process, it became clear that students felt like they were taking agency over their own participation in the course, and we predict that this will be a major factor in their perseverance and success as the Sequence gets underway.
CREATING A CURRICULUM THAT WORKS
The third and final piece—and perhaps the trickiest—has been devising, implementing, and revising a curriculum that is rigorous and classical, yet also approachable, adaptable, and reflective of diverse student populations. At Bard’s pilot program in Orange, the first year began with a fairly straightforward facsimile of the traditional “great books” Seminar curriculum. It became almost immediately apparent—indeed, from the very first books of Homer’s Iliad—that this wasn’t going to work. This text was abstruse, long, and entirely foreign to anything that students had read before: students had been thrown into the deep end, and they were drowning. This outcome didn’t mean that students couldn’t take on the text, but that it needed to be framed differently in order for it to be legible and approachable for students who were new not just to this curriculum, but to the rigors of reading and writing about difficult texts in general.
The Bard team discussed with instructors whether they should cut out some of the “harder” texts on the syllabus and/or rewrite a curriculum sans “dead white men” texts. This seemed like throwing the Dante out with the bathwater. So, with Bard instructors’ guidance—and their responsive, on-the-ground rethinking of the curriculum in real-time—they began to envision a way of reshaping curriculum to retain its core components, but to make it more nimble and approachable. This included:
- Rethinking the focus on chronology as an organizational logic, instead shaping curriculum around thematic units that might be reordered and selected from in order to allow instructors to scaffold and pace their curriculum according to students’ needs.
- Supplementing “core” canonical texts with texts that allowed students to reflect their own cultural capital. Thus, Sappho’s poetic fragments were paired with the multi-persona hip-hop of Nicki Minaj; Plato’s Symposium was paired with Barry Jenkins’ reflection on modern love, Moonlight.
- Replacing some core texts with other equally rigorous ones that were analogous and accomplished similar aims, such as using Bryan Doerries’ Antigone in Ferguson as a modern rethinking of Sophocles’ Antigone.
By reorganizing the syllabus in this way, students were provided with culturally recognizable entry-points into discussion through which they could build their confidence as participants in a college-level seminar. As the Bard team has found with so many students, both in Sequence and at the BHSECs, simply feeling like a “good reader” is often enough to motivate students to push themselves to take on difficult and less familiar texts.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
As we reach the midpoint of Sequence’s pilot year, we continue to ask ourselves the key question: What exactly are the skills that early college teaches that can help students to truly become college students? Some of these are simple and academic—close reading, analytic writing—but others are more nebulous, if just as important: confidence, agency, risk-taking, resilience. Sequence has also helped us to reflect upon what it is that makes Bard’s brand of liberal arts, school-based early college special: it gives students a place to make themselves into college students. In doing so, they are guided and supported by a faculty devoted to making space for student viewpoints and allowing students a chance to “fail upward” and reinvent themselves, thereby preparing them for future postsecondary education and for life. “We students are the products of our own creation,” as one Sequence student put it. “The value and benefit of a program like this one is to open up the gates of discussion and allow students the chance to speak our minds, quite unlike any other class and school.”
If you are interested in learning more about the Bard Sequence or opening a pilot site at your school, please contact email@example.com.
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