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An Interview with U Ba Win

Each month, the Newsroom publishes commentary by the leadership at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. This ongoing series, called Perspectives, is one way in which the College adds its voice to important conversations in higher education.

For the 2008-2009 year, Perspectives will address different aspects of the early college movement. Topics will range from the philosophy behind early college, to the many forms early college programs take, to best practices for teaching and supporting early college students. All of these pieces draw from—and reflect on—the accumulated knowledge of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, founded in 1966 as the nation’s first early college. Since that time, interest in early college has blossomed. Bard High School Early College, founded in 2001 by Simon’s Rock’s Dean of the College U Ba Win and Dean of Academic Affairs Patricia Sharpe inspired the Gates Foundation to start several other high school early colleges in other parts of the country.  Several hundred programs now exist—serving diverse needs through a variety of program structures in an array of settings. Within this vibrant landscape, Simon’s Rock remains not only the pioneering institution, but the nation’s only college of liberal arts and sciences expressly designed to educate students early. This is the unique, time-tested perspective that Simon’s Rock brings.

This month, U Ba Win spoke with us about some of the differences between high school early college programs and early college.

What are some of the major differences between Bard High School Early College and Bard College at Simon’s Rock?

First, although both are four year programs, Bard College at Simon’s Rock has students enroll and begin their education after tenth or eleventh grade. At Simon’s Rock students begin college immediately and may graduate with an Associates of Arts degree or a Bachelors of Arts degree, depending on whether they choose to proceed with our upper college (junior and senior years) program. At Bard High School Early College (BHSEC) students begin in ninth grade, and after four years, earn a Regents high school diploma and an Associates of Arts degree. Bard College at Simon’s Rock is a private four year liberal arts and sciences college located in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Bard High School Early College exists on two locales in New York City, one in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and the other in Long Island City, Queens. Finally, while Simon’s Rock is privately funded, the BHSEC programs are a collaboration between Bard College and New York City’s Department of Education, and as such is publicly funded.

Is the classroom experience and curriculum different at the high school early college compared to Simon’s Rock?

At a high school early college, such as BHSEC, the first two years of a student’s education (9th & 10th grades) prepare them for the college program they will encounter in last two years. What BHSEC students learn in their last two years, though, is very much based on Simon’s Rock first two years.

What is the age difference? Are students at BHSEC younger than students at Simon’s Rock?

At Bard High School Early College students enter when they are 14 years of age (9th grade). Simon’s Rock typically has students enroll when they are 16 or 17 years old (after they complete the tenth or eleventh grade).

Are there different requirements to teach at an early college as opposed to a high school early college?

They are very similar. At BHSEC, college teachers (with PhD or MFA) teach both high school and college courses. Professors at Simon’s Rock possess terminal degrees in their field, but Simon’s Rock does not have a high school component, professors there only teach college courses.

Are there different admission requirements at Simon’s Rock than at Bard High School Early College?

BHSEC is a screened school, which means that students need to come and take a two hour writing and math assessment. If they do well and have at least an 85 average, they are invited to an interview. Roughly one out of three interviewed prospective students will be admitted to BHSEC in the fall.

Simon’s Rock is an early college exclusively, and therefore has a college application process that is identical to all colleges, with the exception that we also require a Parent Supplement to get a better understanding of our more youthful applicants.

I imagine at a public high school early college the institution serves different students than at a private liberal arts and sciences early college. What are some of the central differences you have noticed in the profile of student that finds their way to the two different campuses?

The first major difference obviously is that Simon’s Rock students come from all over the country, and several countries besides. As the presence of the Parent Supplement indicates, we also need to ascertain that a candidate be ready to leave home and be ready to conduct her or his life away from parents, with sufficient maturity and good judgment. A good number of Rockers come from smaller communities where there are few local alternatives: a familiar tale, for example, is an academic or artistically inclined student who feels out of place in a high school that celebrates sports or social life.

As public schools, the two BHSECs draw from all five boroughs, and as a result, we have a population that is as diverse as New York City. Our students come to us in the morning and go home to their families, so we don’t have to have dormitories. The youngest of our students are ninth graders (recognizable by the volume of their voices even when they’re standing two feet away from each other!), and our oldest are 18. But all enjoy—love—being taken seriously, and rise to higher expectations with alacrity. Almost two-third of our students speak a language other than English at home, and will be the first (or second, if they have an older sibling) in the family to earn a college degree.

What do students get at a high school early college that they might not get at an early college?

At Bard High School Early College they get experience of living in a complex and diverse urban environment. For better or for worse, BHSEC students see more on their way to school traveling the city on buses and subways than most students in America. I know a student who takes a bus to a train, then takes the Staten Island ferry, picks up two subways, and walks the final 15 minutes to us: about two hours each way!

At Simon’s Rock they get the residential aspect of the college experience. Almost all of the students at Simon’s Rock live on campus with other early college students. This allows students to have a really well integrated academic, social, and cultural life. They also have access to amazing laboratory, library and classroom facilities.

What is the most noticeable difference you have found when you contrast your experiences at both of these institutions?

The culture of the schools. At Simon’s Rock kindness, trustworthiness, intelligence and consideration are presumed. It wasn't that difficult to recreate this at BHSEC because the students loved being treated with respect and even affection, but we have had to defend our practices. The norm in New York City high schools is to be in control, a "shut up and listen,” or an “I'll tell you what you need to know" kind of mentality. Trusting students to use school spaces responsibly is also uncommon.

What is the most noticeable similarity you have found when you consider your experience at both institutions?

Both populations love being taken seriously, and thrive on it. They want something more than getting an easy “A” on easy tasks. And they want to be with similarly motivated peers!