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High School Students Get a Jump on College in Baltimore

All his life, Anthony Lloyd was told that he wouldn’t graduate high school. “Teachers, principals, just people everybody thought I was going to fail and end up in the streets,” he told a radio station in his hometown of Baltimore. “It was told to me so much I almost believed it.”

Administrators in Baltimore City Public Schools face a familiar challenge with students like Anthony: How do they keep young people feeling motivated, engaged, and determined to further their education past high school? In 2017, they got their first returns on a new initiative that might do just that. 

That was the year when the first four-year class from Bard High School Early College (BHSEC) Baltimore graduated from the school’s innovative early college program. A campus within the larger Bard Early College network, BHSEC Baltimore offers public school students the chance to earn 60 college credits and even a full associate’s degree during their final two years of high school, all within the tuition-free context of a public school system. 

Of that 44-person class, the first to complete the full four-year program at BHSEC Baltimore, 71 percent of students earned an associate’s degree alongside a high school diploma, and 92 percent of students earned a high school diploma and at least one year of transferable college credit on average. This saves students potentially thousands of dollars in educational costs, and for a city where just over 70 percent of students graduate high school at all, those are exciting numbers from an admittedly small sample size.

“There was an acknowledgment by Baltimore City Public Schools that not enough students were graduating with preparation for postsecondary education,” said Clara Haskell Botstein, associate vice president of Bard Early Colleges. “We were the first early college high school to open in Baltimore, and we opened in the fall of 2015, when there was a national focus on Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray. It was a good moment to try something new and student-focused.”

But the Bard model has been similarly effective in other cities, including campuses in Cleveland, New Orleans, Queens, Newark, and Manhattan. Across these programs, Bard Early Colleges boasted an 82 percent associate's degree attainment rate (concurrent with high school graduation) and a 98 percent high school graduation rate. More than 85 percent of alumni from these programs enroll in college within 18 months of graduation.

“Kids are hungry for the challenge to be taken seriously as learners and thinkers,” says Botstein “This provides an option to get a head start on their future.”

Liberal Arts as a MotivatorStudents engaged

Botstein works with the Baltimore campus, which she says is reflective of the Bard Early College approach. The network of BHSEC schools are an initiative of Bard College, located in Hudson Valley, New York and reflect that institution’s steadfast commitment to the liberal arts and public interest work. 

The curriculum is wide-ranging and stresses writing, critical thinking, and communication. The relatively low student-teacher ratio emphasizes that relationship in service of personal skill-building and personal expression. Students are guided by teachers who have college-level qualifications and experience.

“The free degree is the draw, but the close relationship with professors means a lot,” said Botstein. “These are not highly competitive, sink-or-swim places. They are meant to instill a love of learning. Why should a student care about Kafka or Plato? They come up with great ideas about how those texts are applicable to them.”

The curriculum does not focus solely on humanities, however, and more than a third of Bard Early College students major in STEM fields. “Writing, critical thinking, and communication are widely useful,” said Botstein. “BHSEC prepares students to be flexible and adaptable.”

Systems of Success

True to that goal of personal expression, the admissions process is designed to be inclusive. Instead of relying on standardized tests and GPAs, Bard Early Colleges aim for qualitative assessments. Students undergo interviews with staff where they share their stories and passions and complete a writing assessment in which they read a text and then respond to open-ended prompts. It’s designed to be as inviting as possible, and provide a comprehensive look at the student. 

In ninth and 10th grade, students experience structured pre-college curriculum taught by college instructors, with less choice in terms of courses. But in 11th and 12th grades, there’s more course choice, more electives, and less “scaffolding,” in Bard parlance. 

Students participate in seminars where teachers often talk less than the students and really get to build their textual analysis, problem-solving, and writing skills. There is also an emphasis on soft skills like time management, source citation, and study habits.

The opportunity for a postsecondary degree is certainly one carrot worth chasing for these students, but the rigor of study and those secondary skills are their own reward in terms of college preparation. The BHSEC approach is effective college prep by way of early exposure. Students experience firsthand what college requires, rise to the challenge, and—hopefully—see a new outlook for themselves. 

“To be a BHSEC graduate means to love learning, no matter the subject, topic, or situation,” said Anthony Lloyd, who was a member of that BHSEC Baltimore Class of 2017 and is now enrolled at Bard College on a full scholarship. His fellow alumni have gone on to institutions including Stanford University, Morgan State University, and Goucher College. “The desire to expand your knowledge in any and every opportunity given to you is how it feels to be a BHSEC graduate navigating through the world."