Bard High School Early College will open in Baltimore on Monday, offering students a first-of-its-kind opportunity: to graduate from a city high school with a free two-year degree.
Students graduate with a high school diploma, an associate of arts degree and up to 60 transferable college credits from Bard College, a 150-year-old private, liberal arts college based in upstate New York.
City schools CEO Gregory Thornton has called Bard's program a "transformative opportunity," and Gov. Larry Hogan has praised the school program for "outside-of-the-box thinking we need to ensure all children receive a world-class education."
That program is part of a national network and includes college-preparatory courses such as physics and Chinese that segue into two years of college-level seminars in such subjects as algebra and literature.
Bard is a "contract school," which is similar to a charter school but means it has the freedom to tailor its program to have 50 percent of its enrollment be first-generation college students.
The city begins its academic year Monday. Other new city schools include three charter schools, Banneker Blake Academy, a middle school for boys; Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson Charter School, an all-female middle school; and Baltimore Collegiate School for Boys, an elementary/middle school.
Bard's opening comes at a pivotal time. The state is implementing new curricula and exams aimed at improving college and career readiness, and two years ago the General Assembly passed legislation requiring school districts to offer opportunities and incentives for students to participate in college-level work during high school.
In the city, Thornton is leading a $40 million campaign to secure a national program that would provide college scholarships to every Baltimore high school graduate in the next two years.
Baltimore joins a handful of other areas, including Manhattan, Newark, N.J., and Cleveland, Ohio, in the Bard network.
The only similar initiatives in Maryland are an early college high school program at Prince George's Community College and a program called College Park Academy at the University of Maryland.
Bard is unique in that it's "offering college within the support framework of a high school," said Francesca Gamber, head of Bard Baltimore.
Gamber, a Baltimore native who attended Harvard University, developed a passion for increasing college access while volunteering at a high school in Boston. Finding that work more important to her than posting good grades at her Ivy League school, Gamber came home to Baltimore, where her career has included coordinating internships for students in a city high school.
At Bard Baltimore, Gamber will use her experience to guide her in welcoming the inaugural 165-student class of ninth- and 11th-graders. During a weeklong summer session in August of writing and talking, what Bard could offer them became clear.
"What we're offering students is a chance to be exactly who they are," Gamber said. "We're offering a chance to be in a school that encourages them to express themselves, that is confident in their abilities."
Students are accepted based on in-person interviews and a writing sample that could be a paragraph or a page long. Attendance and test scores are not a factor in admissions. Students stand out if they demonstrate curiosity and a determination to meet the school's rigorous standards.
As a result, Bard is drawing low-performing students who would often end up at the worst high schools, as well as those who would otherwise attend flagships such as Polytechnic Institute and City College. The school is also attracting private school students.
The admissions process is designed to capture students like Christopher Johnson, Gamber said.
The 11th-grader who skipped half of his sophomore year at W.E.B. DuBois High School because, he said, his hour-long classes there consisted of 10 minutes of instruction and 50 minutes of teachers trying to manage behavior.
Yet Johnson taught himself four languages — he began learning French by conversing with his African classmates. He researched Bard, prepared for his interview, and for the first time asked his mom to go school shopping.
"This is a 'We're here to learn' type deal," he said. "And not because the state mandated us to be."
Faculty members include career educators from University of Maryland College Park and those whose careers have only spanned one-year fellowships. Staff also includes graduates from other Bard schools.
Some have come from across the country to the trailer on North Wolfe Street, where the school will temporarily be housed this year. Mathematics professor Chris Tsai traveled from Oregon to teach at Bard.
"I like to teach, but I like to teach serious students," said Chris Tsai. "These kids, their minds are here."
For some students and parents, Bard is offering a fresh start.
Denita Watts, a Baltimore schools employee and Baltimore County mother, is allowing her daughter for the first time to attend a school in the city — the same city where Watts was nearly murdered, while pregnant, seven years ago. Watts is working on her own associate's degree, and aspires to earn it by the time her daughter does.
"I just want her to be better than me," Watts said, "and to make better decisions than I did — like going to college right away."
Makenzie Young, another 11th-grader, said her teachers seemed more worried her departure to Bard would hurt the school's honors program than happy she was advancing to a more rigorous program. That's when she knew Bard was for her.
"I don't want to be average," Makenzie said. "I don't want to be held back."
The same is true for 11th-grader Niara Ferguson, who said quirkiness and intellect made her a target for bullying at her previous high school.
"I really appreciate diversity," she said. "In so many places, I felt so out of place."
Faculty members also said they came to Bard in search of a more fulfilling experience.
Their application process includes two interviews and a model lesson that is conducted in front of administrators and students.
Patrick Oray wanted to offer city students the kind of education he received in Chicago, and the kind his private school students experienced at The Park School of Baltimore.
This month, as his new Bard students sat scribbling in notebooks during a "free-write" session, an exercise where they were encouraged to share their thoughts, Oray motioned toward the class.
"This," he said, "is what happens when people have money. But Bard has all of the benefits of a progressive, liberal arts education — for free-ninety-nine."
Bard will eventually expand to serve 500 students. Those who didn't make the cut this year are holding out hope more schools may embrace a similar model.
Denika Russell was among parents who sat nervously while their children interviewed with Bard staff at a local library this summer. Russell had vowed that she would home-school her daughter, a ninth-grader, before she sent her to a sub-par high school in the city.
Bard's rejection letter was the ninth Russell received by the end of July, when most of the best schools informed her there was no more space.
Russell eventually got her daughter into a school they both are happy with, though she hopes to supplement her daughter's education with extra-curricular programs to keep her on the college-track. Russell said her experience over the last few months underscored why she sought Bard in the first place.
"Bard felt outside of Baltimore City schools," Russell said. "The sad thing about our schools is that the ones that have high standards are becoming fewer and farther between. Something has to be done. These kids shouldn't be feeling there is only one place to get a good education."