BHSEC Cleveland: The Newest Member of Our Family

Elie Levine ‘16

Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, gave a speech to BHSEC Manhattan’s Y1s in October. He said he believed that about one third of American teenagers are able to meet the demands of an early college education. In Ohio, Bard High School Early College Cleveland, the newest addition to the BHSEC family, is providing even more American high school students with exposure to early college.

The city of Cleveland is an especially important candidate for another BHSEC. For the past few years, Cleveland has faced the challenge of improving the performance of its public schools. Quality public school education is somewhat scarce in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, and educators and educational organizations are paying increased attention to creating and improving educational opportunities available to Cleveland’s students.

The Cleveland Plan, an initiative enforced by the school district, aims to resolve the potential problems caused by this deficiency. Four public high schools have opened in Cleveland this fall as a result of the initiative. Driven by a “fierce sense of urgency” and an “informed sense of hope,” according to the school district’s website, the Cleveland Plan is an effort to improve Cleveland public schools so that students and staff are held to higher expectations.

Ann Mullin is the program officer for education at the George Gund foundation, a key benefactor of BHSEC Cleveland. In a video released by SchoolTube, she emphasizes the importance of college preparation in Cleveland’s high schools: “The number of kids going to college in Cleveland is increasing,” she says in a video. “It’s not as high as anyone wants it to be, but I think that innovative high school models that really say, ‘We’re going to prepare you for college and career,’ are really important.”

College preparation is just one of the benefits BHSEC Cleveland aims to provide to its students. Students will have the same privileges afforded to students at BHSEC Manhattan—quality education, access to college-level classes, and preparation for traditional four-year colleges—in a public school district where high-quality education is in short supply.

Since school started in August, Dumaine Williams, BHSEC Cleveland’s founding principal, has been “building everything from the ground up”—sorting through logistical issues, recruiting faculty and students, and creating a stimulating academic environment. He wants to adapt the BHSEC model to provide students with “all the things that make that experience of going to a Bard early college unique.” In a new city, this comes with new obstacles.

Creating and enforcing a partnership between Bard College and the Cleveland Metropolitan School District has been a significant challenge. “While we could say that these two entities overlap, the approach taken [in each] is very different,” he says, providing the example of homework: Bard’s opinion as to what the degree and content of students’ homework should be might differ from the district’s.

Other challenges inherent in opening a new BHSEC have to do with logistics. Williams discusses the need for technology sources that meet students’ academic needs. There are also financial challenges. The resources essential for creating an efficient learning environment that ensures high-quality education cost money. Williams faces the challenge of maximizing the quality of students’ education despite financial constraints.

In spite of the challenges it has had to face, Bard High School Early College Cleveland has been a grand success. The school’s summer bridge program, an orientation for the class of incoming freshmen and Year 1 students, started on August 4th of this year. Writing and Thinking began on August 18th. The school is equipped with nine full-time teachers and a selection of introductory high school and college courses. Incoming ninth-graders take Literature of the Americas, History of the Americas, a studio art course, and an Algebra and Geometry course. Students participate in an Intro to Language module in which they receive Mandarin Chinese and Spanish instruction. Students also take an Intro to Science course in the fall semester, followed by a biology course in the spring semester. The school’s inaugural group of Y1s has the opportunity to take college algebra, first-year seminar, biology, a Chinese culture elective, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, and studio art. Williams hopes to offer psychology, economics, chemistry, and physics courses, as well as literature-based electives and political and social science electives, all within the next year.

Building BHSEC Cleveland’s curriculum has required adapting the models put in place by other BHSECs. Williams has adapted familiar institutions, such as the summer bridge program and Writing and Thinking workshops, from other early colleges. BHSEC Cleveland has also adapted BHSEC Newark’s approach to teaching study skills. Williams plans to institute a skills-based research workshop course at the Cleveland campus, designed to help students work on skills that are helpful for classwork. The course will teach students the skills required for college-level inquiry.

The admissions process at BHSEC Cleveland is as rigorous as its courses. Williams looks for students who can demonstrate a level of motivation and interest for the academically rigorous program and who will be active participants in a seminar-style classroom. Students should also “cover a range of viewpoints and perspectives” that can help contribute to a rich seminar environment. BHSEC Cleveland students possess interests and capabilities similar to those of pupils at the rest of the country’s BHSECs.

In fact, Williams sees a future for interaction between BHSEC Cleveland and the rest of the nation’s BHSEC campuses, mentioning that BHSEC Manhattan’s own Dr. Freund contacted him about starting a pen-pal program between the two schools. Williams has noticed a fair amount of interest from students and faculty at the Manhattan, Queens, Newark, and New Orleans early colleges in creating a culture of connection between the schools, and he believes this interest will bring students together (for example, at events like the Hannah Arendt conference, held at Bard College in October) despite geographical barriers.

The future is bright for BHSEC Cleveland. As the school develops, Williams is excited to nurture students and watch them grow within the context of a quality curriculum. He wants to provide them with basic skills such as time management in addition to all the rich academic content an early college education provides. He believes early college can give Cleveland’s students a “passport to the next level” that their financial needs might otherwise prevent them from obtaining.

Above all, Williams promotes the beliefs at the core of liberal arts education. “The Bard approach is very much a liberal arts approach,” he says, “a liberal, free, student-centered approach.” By challenging students and exposing them to college-level work, Williams intends to give students more ownership and freedom, allowing them to “map their own paths” to success.

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