Kayla Alexis, 17, is one of those New Orleans high school seniors who felt hampered by a common teaching style that gives pat answers to complex questions. Alexis, a student at The New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School, knew she wanted more from school, but until she was accepted to Bard College’s early college program, she wasn’t sure what she was missing.

“This is wrong. You are interpreting it wrong,” she says teachers would tell her.

Not so at Bard College, she says. At Bard, the primary frustration comes from figuring out, after weeks of discussing a pressing social question, that there aren’t any clear answers to complicated issues.

“Every class is based on a question that’s not answered,” she says.

And she likes it that way.

Schools around the nation are trying to figure out ways to teach the critical thinking skills that high school graduates need to do well in college. Too often high school teachers are not prepared well enough themselves or overwhelmed by large classes and other expectations to prepare lesson plans that challenge deeper thinkers like Alexis.

Bard College, a small liberal arts college with campuses in New York, California, Germany and Russia, has been offering early college credit to some New Orleans juniors and seniors for five years. Former Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas encouraged Bard to bring its high school program to New Orleans, and private funding did the rest. Since its inception, officials say 500 students have gone through the program, and 98 percent have been accepted to four-year colleges. On average, they received $18,000 in yearly scholarships.

Bard Early College courses are taught in three classrooms on the International High School of New Orleans' Central Business District campus. Part-time, experienced instructors teach seminar-style classes in the afternoons to about 90 New Orleans Public High School students each year. They teach classes with titles such as these: “New Orleans: What Does It Mean?”; “What Does It Mean to Be Educated?”; and “What Does It Mean to Think?” Other courses have explored the sociology of justice, Latin American art history and the 14th Amendment – the amendment to the U.S. Constitution that gave emancipated slaves the same rights as other American citizens.

The classes require intensive reading, thinking and writing, the most important skills students need to succeed in college. The readings come from some of the most important thinkers from cultures around the globe. In the course “What Does It Mean to Be Educated?,” for example, the course reader includes Book IV of Plato’s Republic; three books from Confucius’ The Analects; three chapters from Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto; and two chapters from W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk.

This academic year, 12 students from the International School and 70 from RSD schools from all over Orleans Parish were chosen to attend the program. Bard College graduate Nina Feldman, Assistant Director for Outreach, recruits interested students by giving presentations at participating high schools. Then the students are interviewed, and those who are selected from the interviews are assigned readings to discuss in mock seminars. A Bard representative takes notes from the discussions, and then a final selection is made.

“We are not as concerned with test scores or GPA as we are with a spirit of inquiry,” Feldman says.

In fact, says Program Director Stephen Tremaine, the average GPA of accepted students is a 2.6 – a “C.” Tremaine and his staff select students “who get fired up about ambiguities, the students who want to know more.”

As it turns out, there are hundreds of students in RSD schools who are aching for a challenge, far more than the program can possibly take. Tremaine says that 800 students were interviewed last year for 90 spots. “It’s depressing to turn so many away,” he says.

Even though the program is demanding, the students who are accepted tend to stick around. One student, for instance, flunked two classes for plagiarizing a single sentence from an outside source. Instead of dropping out in anger or frustration, he stuck with the program and “has done a complete 180,” Tremaine says.

Students say they like the give and take of classroom discussions. “What I really enjoy is listening to other people’s opinions,” says Destiny McWilliams, a senior at Lake Area New Tech Early College. “The best way to get ideas is listening to other’s ideas. It all makes one big idea.”

One of McWilliams’ favorite classes was one that explored the sociology of criminal justice. It raised the question of who should punish wrongdoers, God, mankind or individuals? In this course, McWilliams says she offered the idea that society needs crime. “There would be a lot of people without jobs,” she says.

Not many agreed with her, but Alexis said she did. “Everything here is so controversial,” she says. “You learn so much more about the world around you.”

Alexis says that one of the epiphanies she has had came in the course about criminal punishment. When she arrived, she says she was sure that her opinions would never change on certain topics, and one of them was her hatred of the New Orleans Police Department. Then, after a discussion about crime and the NOPD, her opinion changed.

The discussion led her to question her assumptions. “Is the problem the NOPD or is it us?” she found herself asking.
After Alexis graduates from high school, she hopes to attend Bard College in New York. She is waiting to hear if she has been accepted to a program that offers a scholarship that covers tuition and fees of about $45,000. In the meantime, she’s pleased that she has been accepted to three universities in Louisiana. Loyola University has offered her a $44,000 scholarship, she says, which is just short of free tuition.

There are many high school students who could handle more challenging instruction, if given the chance, Tremaine says. “There is a lot of talent in this city.”