NEW YORK — The choice of where to attend high school is rarely the road to instant celebrity. But opening day at Bard High School Early College made it clear to the school's first crop of students that they were at the center of an eye-catching educational experiment.
Accompanied by TV cameras and reporters, 260 intent but slightly dazed teenagers filed in last week to begin their studies at an institution that shatters the paradigm for US secondary education.
At the root of its radical approach is intensity. The public school - a joint venture between Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., and the New York City Board of Education - allows students to compress four years of high school into two, and then complete two years of college by the age of 18.
Students will face a challenging curriculum and the need for a high level of self-discipline - not a prospect designed to appeal to every teen. But for many of the adults involved, the school addresses an increasingly urgent issue: the fear that many high schools fail to make the most of the four years students spend within their walls.
"Our high schools are not as challenging as they ought to be, especially by international standards," says Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington. "Kids are not failing, but neither are they showing the mastery they'll have to have for the future."
While the younger grades have tended to dominate the education-reform debate of the past decade, reformers are currently reconsidering the size, shape, and four-year progression of the US high school. It's all part of an effort to peel back the layers of tradition surrounding high schools and to reconsider what the essence of the experience ought to be.
Boredom and negativity are conditions some educators say too often characterize high school. While poor test scores at large schools in low-income neighborhoods have been more apt to capture headlines, there is concern that the quality of American secondary education - which critics charge often fails to challenge the best learners or bolster the weaker ones - needs rethinking across the board.
Bard College President Leon Botstein has gained notoriety in recent years as one of the toughest critics of high school, contending that his work with college freshmen gives him a keen sense that the institution is obsolete.
According to Dr. Botstein, four years of high school is too long for adolescents, who mature earlier than teens did several decades ago. He sees the typical high school as an artificial, age-segregated setting that may cram kids with facts but does little to promote a love of learning or adequately prepare them for interaction with an adult world.
Either a foray into the working world or early college would better suit most 16- and 17-year-olds, Botstein argues.
It's an extreme position - and many would disagree with Botstein's belief that as many as 75 percent of college-bound students are ready for college work by the age of 16. But in some respects, his dissatisfaction is echoed throughout mainstream educational circles.
The need to reform US schools at all levels has been at the forefront of public dialogue for at least a decade now. But the bulk of recent reform efforts have been aimed at younger learners. Only in the past few years have a number of influences converged to bring a sense of urgency to high school reform.
One driving force has been the standards movement, which has raised serious concerns about the ability of high school students to pass the exit exams soon to be required for graduation by some states.
At the same time, results of some tests already being administered are being viewed with alarm. On the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress math test, 4th- and 8th- graders showed marked improvement since 1996, but 12th-grade scores dropped during the same period.
In addition, social problems - particularly at larger high schools - have drawn more attention. School shootings like those at Columbine in Littleton, Colo., and Santee High School in Santana, Calif., have hilighted the extreme alienation some students experience at school and the lack of adult intervention in troubled young lives.
But even more pressing in the eyes of some educators is the fact that while the global economy and today's job market have undergone dramatic shifts in recent decades, high school has remained stubbornly the same.
"We've undergone a shift from a manufacturing-based to a knowledge-based economy," says Michelle Cahill, senior program officer in the education division of the New York-based Carnegie Corp. "Students today need to learn to work with words, language, and technology. Those who can't will be shut out."
But consensus as to how to create an education system that will successfully fit teenagers for the world ahead remains elusive.
At Bard High School Early College (BHSEC), at least some of the eager new enrollees - selected from applicants all over New York City - are excited at the thought of escaping from a traditional high school experience.
"Everything here will be squashed into a shorter time and so it will be faster and more interesting, even if it's harder," says ninth-grader Catherine Wiacek. Sometimes, she says of her previous school, "We just repeated the same things over and over."
"I won't be surrounded by negativity here like I was at my old school," says Jennifer Fermin, who will be, in effect, starting her first year of college as a junior at BHSEC. "Some kids were just there to destroy."
The school is starting with two classes, one of ninth-graders and another of students who would be in 11th grade but are now starting college studies. When they graduate, they'll receive two-year college degrees (for free) and can transfer into four-year colleges as juniors. Those who, for whatever reason, want a high-school degree will have to take a GED exam.
Scores of different high school reforms are currently under way in schools all across the US, including several large projects fueled by multimillion-dollar grants from philanthropic groups such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle.
Much of the impetus behind the proposed redesigns is the drive to render the high school experience both more personal and more flexible.
Among the most common reforms currently being instituted:
Downsizing. Perhaps the largest share of the current focus on high school reform is fixed on the creation of smaller schools, often breaking down one large high school into several smaller "academies." Public schools in New York, Chicago, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Oakland, Calif., and throughout the state of Colorado are all currently shrinking.
Rethinking the four-year progression. Some schools are experimenting with graduation timetables that vary from three to five years, depending on a student's needs and interests. At the same time, a national commission is examining the senior year, raising questions about its purpose and value. Many schools are also working to enrich and strengthen ninth grade.
Real-life experience. More educators want to get students out of the classroom and into internships and community-service programs, in recognition of the fact that not all learning is academic.
Early college. BHSEC is unusual, but not entirely unique. Two other New York City public schools are working with a local college to allow students to complete two years of college in a five-year high school program, while high schools across the US are increasingly allowing students to take community-college classes.
But there has yet to emerge any consensus on what the purpose of high school really is - and what adolescents need to learn.
"It's reasonably easy to come up with standards for K-8 schools," says Rick Hess, assistant professor of government and education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "But in high school there's more fragmentation, more disagreement. For instance, do they all really need algebra and two languages?"
From about 1900 to 1950, many high schools still offered a fairly rigorous college-preparatory curriculum, with subjects like Latin, physics, and geometry viewed as staples.
But at the time, a much smaller percentage of Americans attended high school. Only since the 1950s have a majority of those eligible been in high school.
"On the one hand, this is an extraordinary success story," says Leslie Santee Siskin, associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass. "In 50 years we've turned high school from something only the elite went to, into something for every adolescent in America, and that's a remarkable thing."
And yet, she adds, "The question is: 'Now that they're all there, what can we do for them?' "
Botstein provided some of his own answers to these questions as he addressed the BHSEC students on their first day. "We want to focus on inquiry and critical thought rather than to spoon-feed you," he told them. "We want to give every single one of you the capacity to never be bored ..., to see the ordinary and change it ..., to discover what you think, why you think it, and to defend it."
To some, such goals may seem lofty but nebulous. For Botstein, helping high school students reach them "is probably the most important thing I've ever done in all my years as an educator."
Colonial US: Private and public grammar schools teach Latin, Greek, and occasionally Hebrew to prepare boys for college, the clergy, or public service. Typical courses include Cicero, Virgil, the Greek poets, and the New Testament.
1821: The first American high school is created - The English High School in Boston, offering a three-year course of study including navigation, algebra, philosophy, history, and bookkeeping to boys age 12 and older.
Pre-1865: There are still only about 300 high schools in the United States, mostly concentrated in the Northeast. About 2 percent of 17-year-olds have high school diplomas.
1890-1920: Total high school enrollment jumps from 200,000 to 2 million, although in 1900 the typical high school still has only two teachers.
1910-1930: The percentage of students studying Latin, Greek, algebra, geometry, and physics declines, while the percentage studying general science, home economics, bookkeeping, and typing increases.
1950: About half of 25- to 29-year-olds in the US have high school diplomas.
Early 1950s: Education researcher James Bryant Conant travels through the US, urging the creation of large comprehensive high schools to give students more choices.
1960s: President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society program stresses the need to educate all children.
1975: The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires US public schools to educate students with disabilities.
1998: 85 percent of 25- to 29-year-olds in the US have high school diplomas.