Bard Academy: Accelerated program at Simon’s Rock for 9th, 10th gradersMore Info
Great Barrington — Starting in the fall of 2015, a new pedagogical model will be premiered on the Bard College at Simon’s Rock campus, on Alford Road between Division Street and Castle Hill. Bard Academy at Simon’s Rock, an accelerated high school program that will allow students to finish high school in two years, will be opening its doors to interested students finishing up eighth grade and seeking a challenge.
The Academy shares its campus with Simon’s Rock, the only residential early college in the country. Despite the young age of its students, Simon’s Rock has been rated higher than Princeton, Harvard, and Yale in academics for three consecutive years by the Princeton Review, and students in the B.A. program are required to complete a senior thesis project comparable to some graduate level work.
Since its founding in 1966, Simon’s Rock has offered an alternative to the existing model of secondary and higher education. The hope is that Bard Academy brings that project to its natural extension by creating a coherent 2-year program for highly motivated students looking for more of a challenge at a natural break in their education.
“Simon’s Rock is premised on the presumption that we can do better than high school,” says physics professor Michael Bergman, adding “We expect more of younger students. There’s no reason that can’t be extended to prepare ninth graders for college work. My hope is that it will make people reexamine how we do high school education.”
Simon’s Rock College was adopted by Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., in 1979. Bard also operates Bard High School Early College (BHSEC) programs in New York City and Cleveland, Ohio, amongst other locations. BHSEC students graduate with both an Associate of Arts degree and a high school diploma.
The Bard Academy program will be distinct from these, however, in that it is residential (sharing a campus with Simon’s Rock, although Academy students will be housed in a separate dormitory) and it is not partnered with the public school system. The Academy is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), which means that it will not be required to follow the Common Core curriculum, but that students will not receive a high school diploma.
Alternative education acolytes such as Ian Bickford don’t necessarily see the lack of high school diploma as a problem, however. Bickford is the Dean of Bard Academy and has taught both at the BHSEC program and at Simon’s Rock. “Bard Academy helps to dispel the myth of the high school diploma,” Bickford states boldly. “It’s complicated to explain who we are,” he says of Simon’s Rock, “because not finishing high school confuses people.” But Bard Academy offers a “coherent two year program that you do finish.”
Classes at the Academy will provide students with a solid grounding in disciplines such as science and history which will prepare them for the abstract thinking and theoretical investigation they will encounter at Simon’s Rock. They will also encourage students to use their studies as an entryway into engaging with the local community and the world at large. The science curriculum at Bard Academy will focus on climate change and food studies — two areas of investigation extremely relevant to our changing society.
“Through our classes, we will demonstrate science’s relevance and coherence,” explains Bergman, who, along with biology professor Erin McMullin, has stepped forward to design the science curriculum for Academy students. “But in our lab sessions, we ask questions that we don’t necessarily know the answers to,” giving students the opportunity to learn and take the first steps towards conducting original research.
Professors admit that they have relished the opportunity to design a new curriculum geared towards students who will be entering their college-level classes. “We get to ask the question: what would we want our first years to know?” says Kathryn Boswell, professor of anthropology, who has been amongst faculty planning a comprehensive curriculum for Academy students. “This has been a chance to explore and talk across disciplines.” She says that curriculum planning meetings have been conducted in a seminar format similar to that of Simon’s Rock classes, where students and their professors sit around a table together, in an open discussion format.
Current senior Amanda Johnston says that the seminar style has been very intentionally extended to include students in the dialogue on the Academy’s formation. “Ian holds an open student forum during dinner times once a month, where he listens to student’s feedback on the Academy,” she says, adding that “Because Ian was so open about hearing people’s opinions, people realized they could be involved. He’s actually been using some of our ideas and putting them into practice.”
Admiration for Dean Ian Bickford was unanimous amongst all the students and faculty I interviewed. And no wonder — for he is one of their own. “Ian as an alum really understands the Simon’s Rock mentality,” Amanda Johnston says. “He listens patiently with a lot of honesty and grace.” Bickford, who was an English major, received his Associate’s degree from Simon’s Rock before transferring to UC Berkeley, and has taught at Simon’s Rock as well as the Bard High School Early College (BHSEC) program in Queens. He also worked in the admissions office at Simon’s Rock for a time, making him a candidate with multiple levels of insight into the early college mission. He describes the Bard Academy/Simon’s Rock as an educational endeavor that “supports students over a broad age range with multiple points of entry, multiple points of transfer.” Students who come into the Academy after eighth grade will receive college credit through their courses, and can choose to transfer the credit to Simon’s Rock or another institution. If they enter the college program at Simon’s Rock, they may stay for two years and receive an Associate’s, or for four years to receive a B.A.
The Academy will open with a small cohort of 15-30 students in the first year. They are welcoming day students from the surrounding Berkshires in addition to students from all regions of the country. The hope is that Bard Academy will offer another choice for Berkshire families, who already have access to a wide range of options in alternative education, and that for some students it will be a choice that provides a natural next step consistent with existing innovative middle school programs.
Jared Weiss is a former Rocker who graduated in May of 2014. Unlike most of his fellow students, Jared actually graduated high school before attending Simon’s Rock — at the age of 14. Now 18, Jared works as an EMT (after completing a training course during his senior year) and assists in a lab doing research. “A lot of the concern I hear from current students and alumni is in regard to having younger students on campus,” Jared says, reflecting on the Academy. “Well, many 14- and 15-year-olds have already done well in this environment. I was 14 when I went to the Rock and I feel I fit in pretty well with my fellow students. It was a great place for me, especially when I was younger.”
Simon’s Rock is founded upon the idea that age doesn’t matter, that higher education should be accessible to students whenever they are ready, not just after they have gone through four years in high school. Bard Academy opens the door for even younger students to embrace their inner scholar. Katie Boswell describes the proposed curriculum of the Academy with fervor: “Academic rigor, an emphasis on writing clearly, discussion based classrooms, accountability and community amongst peers and faculty, intellectual curiosity. Learning as FUN.”