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Bard president to visit college's new venture with CMSD

Bard College President Leon Botstein will visit Cleveland on Friday to help launch the New York institution’s latest attempt to help transform urban education.

Botstein will attend a noon ribbon cutting for CMSD’s new Bard High School Early College Cleveland, where students can earn associate degrees from Bard at the same time that they receive high school diplomas.

The West Side high school expands CMSD’s portfolio of options, a centerpiece of The Cleveland Plan, a state-approved blueprint for reform. This is the fourth such school started by the small liberal-arts college, joining two in New York City and a third in Newark, N.J.

In his 1997 book, “Jefferson’s Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture, “ Botstein argues that traditional high school is obsolete and that students are ready at a younger age for college-level work.

Cleveland’s Bard, which started classes Aug. 18, takes students deeper into content so high school courses merge seamlessly into college study. The same teacher who has a student in, say, a ninth-grade high school literature course may see him or her again in a college literature seminar.

“The faculty really can plan backwards,” Principal Dumaine Williams said. “If the end result is to have you in my seminar and work through a 10-page paper with this level of analysis and critique, how do I plant those seeds in ninth grade, when you’re 14, so you can think analytically and start getting the skills that are necessary to complete that task?”

Bard High School Early College opened with ninth- and 11th-graders and, thus, will have all four levels in 2016. The 100-plus freshman slots attracted 351 applicants. Getting juniors to make the switch midstream was a harder sell – the school accepted 22 of 36 applicants.

School seeks student mix
The school is one of several in the District with admissions criteria but tries to be inclusive, particularly when it comes to points of view.

Though there is no minimum grade-point average, applicants must go through one-on-one interviews with staff to review their report cards and see if they are up to the challenge. Those who have struggled at times must reflect on the experience and explain how they would overcome obstacles if given a second chance.

Prospective students also have to complete a two-part writing exercise. The first half requires them to react to a poem or other creative piece; the second is an open-ended invitation to reveal their passions or something else about themselves.

“It isn’t a grammar exercise, it isn’t about spelling,” Williams said. “We hope that you use proper grammar and spell the words correctly, obviously. But the top writing assessment isn’t the one that has the fewest spelling mistakes; it’s the one where the student is really able to show us, through writing, something about them.”

For the inaugural classes, Williams reviewed all the files and picked the students. He looked for those who are hungry to learn, see education as a means to achieve change or believe they have a perspective worth sharing.

The product is a mix ranging from ninth-graders who carry B-plus averages and have mastered Algebra I to artists who come at issues from their own unconventional angles. Peers learn from one another while exploring philosophic questions that ultimately may have no clear answer.

“School before was always ‘Tell me the answer, tell me the answer, tell me the answer,’ “ Williams said. “Here we make an effort to say, ‘Here are the questions. What do you think?’ “

Bard is based for at least this year off West 117th Street just north of Interstate 71, in a former K-8 building retrofitted with teen-size lockers. A permanent site has not been determined.

Bard responds to calls for more innovation on the West Side, and enrollment is skewed to that side of town. Williams said many students are new to CMSD or had left the District.

Bard challenges students, teachers
Junior Bryan Rodriguez, who lives near West 116th Street and Madison Avenue, previously attended CMSD schools but was enrolled in an East Side charter school when his family received a postcard alerting them to the opportunity at Bard.

Bryan was excited at the chance to earn an associate degree while attending school closer to home. He said he is comfortable with Bard’s teaching style, adding that he performs best when facing a challenge.

“This is what I wanted. I know it’s going to be hard,” he said. “It was worth it to come here.”

The high school’s faculty members are considered to be professors at the college. To qualify, Williams said, they had to hold college teaching credentials while also demonstrating that that they were not only willing and able to work with 14-year-olds, but that they would love it.

Only one of the nine faculty members, visual-arts teacher Alan Mintz, came from within CMSD. The others are from academia.

Mintz, who formerly taught in college, said he had not planned to leave his position at John Adams High School but was drawn to a totally new environment and challenges.

“We are just getting started,” Mintz said. “We are inventing the school. This is not a cookie-cutter school. This is Bard High School Early College Cleveland. It’s going to have its own identity.”

Bard will tailor the program in Cleveland to the city, based on the circumstances and obstacles that students face, Williams said.

Williams, 33, graduated from Bard College and formerly headed the school in Newark. He helped with the Cleveland project as a consultant and then decided he wanted he wanted to stay.

He was impressed by the way the George Gund and Cleveland foundations collaborated with the District to expand the portfolio. The foundations helped to pay the school’s start-up expenses, support that Williams said is critical to developing a new site.

Money is being raised for another Bard school in Baltimore. Williams said the high schools help Bard College fulfill a commitment to civic engagement and address an area of high need.

“We can’t solve a city’s financial problems,” he said. “But we can, with some authority, provide a way of thinking through education and apply practices that we have developed as a college that we have found to be useful.”