Sometimes high school just isn't enough

While still a junior in high school, Liz Dempsey found herself deep into college classes in calculus and Chinese, and sitting through seminars on Proust and Joyce.

"At times I was like, 'How could I be doing this?' " recalls the energetic young woman.

But she and 92 peers somehow did do it, successfully leaping from sophomore year of high school straight into freshman year of college. And last month they received diplomas certifying their unusual achievement.

They are the members of the first graduating class of the Bard High School Early College in New York City. Most are 18 but already leaving high school with two years of college and associate in arts degrees under their belts.

Despite the fact that they barely qualify for driver's licenses in New York City, a number of them will be entering four-year colleges as juniors in the fall.

The strength of this class - in addition to a flood of applications for the fall - are validation of this unusual school, dreamed up by Bard College president Leon Botstein and former New York City schools chancellor Harold Levy.

Dr. Botstein grabbed the NYC Board of Education's attention with his book "Jefferson's Children," where he rails against US high schools as outdated and failing to challenge bright students.

He suggested that many teens are ready for college courses at 16 - the age at which he enrolled in the University of Chicago.

Botstein also has considerable experience with early college through his work with Simon's Rock College in Great Barrington, Mass., the country's only four-year college designed for young students. Chancellor Levy was intrigued by the notion of early college and met Botstein for breakfast to discuss it.

Soon - with a speed truly remarkable for a large urban school district - the Bard High School Early College was born.

It would be a New York City public high school, located in temporary quarters in Brooklyn and later in Manhattan, open to all New York City students. But Bard would collaborate, helping to supply administrators, faculty, and additional funding.

The idea came together so late in the school year in 2001 that in June the new school had a plan but no students. Administrators hoped that, by running ads in local papers and sending postcards to all city homes with high school students, they'd entice a highly motivated group to apply.

They succeeded. Apparently the idea of early college was one that spoke to a varied cross- section of students born in more than 20 different countries and scattered throughout the city.

Andrew Stephens was away on summer vacation when his mother called to tell him she had received one of the postcards.

Andrew had just finished his sophomore year at Flushing High School - one of the city's largest - and was ranked among its top students. But he wasn't satisfied. "I found high school to be an oppressive atmosphere," he says.

The idea of a more challenging course of studies appealed to him - as did the chance to study in a more intimate setting. Despite the fact that the school's Brooklyn locale would require a lengthy commute from Queens, he applied for the opportunity to compress his high school studies into a two-year program that would also include two years of college.

Josemon Raju was actually quite happy at his Staten Island high school when he read about the new school in the paper. Several adults told him not to take a chance on an experiment they thought likely to fail - particularly considering the strong record he'd compiled where he was. "But[Bard High School] offered a challenge," Josemon says. [Editor's note: The original version of this story misspelled the last name of Josemon Raju.]

David Tsang had won a spot at Brooklyn Tech, one of the city's most academically competitive high schools, but after two years he had become restless. At Bard, he says, "They had a message" about the potential for student achievement. "There was no message like that at Brooklyn Tech."

Liz Dempsey was already receiving a premier education at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, one of the city's most elite Upper East Side private schools, five minutes from her apartment. But she chose Bard - and a three-subway commute to a public school with bare-bones facilities.

"I've always loved school, but I got to a point where I didn't value it anymore," she says. The thrill of jumping into college classes at Bard revived her love of learning, and it allowed her to exchange French for Chinese - a subject she quickly fell in love with and plans to study in college.

The students agree that life at a school with college-level standards had its stressful moments. David and Andrew were shaken to get their first Cs on written assignments. "At my old school, as long as my paper had an introduction, a middle, and a conclusion, I could always get an A," he says. "This required substance."

Combining the last two years of high school math with the beginning of college-level calculus was also overwhelming at times. "We were working 11-hour days," Josemon recalls. But the support from teachers was so strong and the atmosphere so collegial that, in many ways, "being at school was like being at home," he says.

Outside events also played a role in shaping the early days of the new school. Convocation had barely taken place before terrorists struck the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. The smoke from the towers was visible from the school's Brooklyn campus.

"I think that just brought us closer together," Liz says. "It made me feel more determined."

Now these students are preparing for the second step of their college experience, set to begin as juniors this fall. Liz and Andrew will enter Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson. Liz will major in Chinese and Andrew in psychology - new interests both discovered at Bard High School. Josemon will begin as a junior at Haverford College in Haverford, Pa., majoring in economics.

David chose to enter Wesleyan University in Middetown, Conn., as a freshman. A number of other well-regarded schools would have welcomed him as a junior, but he selected Wesleyan as the best fit for him even though they would not accept the credits he earned in high school.

About a quarter of the Bard graduates will begin college next year as freshmen. Many found that colleges - although initially baffled by their unusual records - were ultimately eager to recruit the Bard applicants. "A lot of us got interesting [college] offers," Josemon says.

Concerns about early college experience, however, don't center on the academic. Some adults question whether students as young as 18 are socially and emotionally ready to navigate life as college juniors, and then to leave college at the tender age of 20.

But Botstein points out that at that age he graduated from the University of Chicago, went on to receive two graduate degrees from Harvard, and then at 23 became the youngest college president in US history. The students exude comparable confidence. "It's nothing I can't handle," Liz says.

Josemon's sister will attend Bard High School in the fall, and Liz's mother thinks so highly of the program she recommends it to people they meet in restaurants. But the students express some skepticism about the plan of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation of Seattle to open 70 similar schools around the country.

They emphatically agree more students should get a shot at early college, but question if it will be possible to maintain the caliber on such a large scale. "There need to be more schools like this one," says Liz, who left friends behind at prep school who envied her somewhat but didn't choose to follow. "But only a limited number."

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