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Kesi Augustine

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Obama's Dream: A Model NYC High School

Posted: 07/28/09 11:05 AM ET

When I heard President Barack Obama mention my Manhattan high school, Bard High School Early College, in his speech to the NAACP last week, I was paralyzed with surprise. I was not alone. After the speech, members of my graduating class posted a surge of status updates on Facebook. Phrases like "National recognition, baby!" and "go Bardians!" proclaimed how happy they were that our high school was recognized on a larger stage. Obama's recognition of my high school is sure to bring attention to an institution that promotes unity among diverse students, gives them an intense workload to prepare them for college, and teaches them to think critically. Perhaps that national recognition will mean more students in the U.S. can get the kind of education I got at BHSEC.

The speech's most important theme was educational reform. Obama believes that all races should have the same opportunity for an enriching learning experience. My "innovative" high school, he implied, should be a model for educators because of its strong academics and diverse student body. Education policy makers, he implied, should explore BHSEC's unique approach, which "challenges students to complete high school and earn a free associate's degree or college credit in just four years." Because my fellow students and I were able to earn this Associate's degree from Bard College, many of us saved money by entering college as sophomores and juniors. For others, the degree represented an opportunity to double major, or to skip intro and survey courses often required by many four-year courses.

The most rewarding part of my experience at BHSEC, however, WAS more than just the Associate's degree. The school introduced me to critical thinking and writing about my place in the world. Our teachers did not give us the recipe for performing well on state-wide tests and SATs, although we performed well in that respect, too. Rather, our small classes thrived on student energy in open seminar discussions and debates about course material. The challenge, as President Obama called for in his speech, never ended. No one could be successful in Bard by slumping in a seat.

The typical night of homework included musing over the implications of W.E.B. DuBois' theory of double consciousness, calculating anti-derivatives, and writing about the similarities between Toni Morrison and William Faulkner. During our junior and senior years, the professors expected everyone to read works by writers like Sophocles, Plato, Dante, Darwin, Marx, and Kafka. Those texts were our repertoire--we discussed them together and wrote about their relevance during their time period as well as our own. After taking a contemporary architecture class, my friends and I would walk the streets of Manhattan and jokingly remark, "That is so post-modern."

Not every student could learn this way. A few dropped out over the four years despite the supportive network of teachers and faculty available. However, those students did not cop out. BHSEC was emotionally demanding. Those students simply realized that their destiny was in their own hands, as Obama said, and that BHSEC's accelerated method of learning, while it stimulates the mind, requires a sense of maturity some teenagers do not yet have while in high school.

If we are going to strive for the educational equality Obama calls for, every American student should have the education I did. I was more than prepared for success in "real" college, largely owed to what I learned at BHSEC. As a rising sophomore at Williams College, I frequently refer back to my seminar experience at Bard. During my freshman year at Williams, I was not perfect, yet I knew how to approach reading a novel a week, how to write a formal 10-page paper, and how to ask for help when I needed it. I had professors from high school I could ask for advice. I was confident in my ability to survive a difficult class. In contrast, few of my new college friends had this advantage. Students at Williams have often said, "In high school, I didn't even have to think. Now, it's all about thinking. I don't know if I even trust myself to come up with something good." I wonder how much better they would feel about their schoolwork--and their selves--if their high schools had encouraged independent thinking and critical analysis as Bard did.

BHSEC students come from the five boroughs of New York City, from both high and low income families. They are the children of immigrants from all over the world. They identify as Christians, Muslims, Jews and atheists. They are hipsters, athletes, artists, musicians, liberals, conservatives, and, most importantly, eager students. My experience at BHSEC taught me that our similarities outweigh our differences. A Muslim and a Christian can be best friends. A gay and a straight can both believe in finding true love. A Latino and an African American can joke with each other about the stereotypes that exist in their communities. My friend Naim taught me to live my Christian beliefs, no matter how hard they are to follow, as he fasted during Ramadan. My best group of girlfriends and I proudly called ourselves "the birds," a play on the slang term "bird" for a minority girl who embodies the stereotypes of loudness and ignorance. We were from these same minority neighborhoods, yet attended one of the best schools in New York City.

While the nation still struggles with issues of race-- we hear about segregated proms in Mississippi and about African American children turned away from a private swimming pools in Philadelphia--BHSEC students considered our differences a means of learning from one another. During my senior year at high school, an Asian peer told me that I "smell Black." Her comment opened up a discussion between the two of us and a school counselor about approaching one another. She apologized and said, "I didn't even know you would take it that way." We became friends. Without a non-confrontational discussion, neither of us would have understood our intentions. To me, President Obama's support for BHSEC means he also supports these same approaches to racial issues among adolescents.

President Obama's speech, though specific to minorities and education, was a testimonial to his identity as a man of the people. "When I drive through Harlem or I drive through the South Side of Chicago," he said, "and I see young men on the corners, I say, there but for the grace of God go I." I thought of the men I know who felt Obama was personally speaking to them during his election. I grew up in a Queens neighborhood where graduating high school is a feat for African American men. When I run into these neighbors during visits back home, they often tell me to "keep doing the school thing." I thought of how nervous those same men felt as they stood on line to vote for the first time. These men just wanted to make a difference. I know that the high-fives they shared with one another after voting revealed the same empowerment I felt after graduating from Bard.

I attended a speech Obama gave in Washington Square Park in September 2007, when his name was recognized by few. I felt his sincerity as he spoke underneath the Roman arch lit against the dark sky. The next day, the New York Post dubbed him "Rock Star Obama." He quickly became a part of my life, causing my youngest brother, Kyle, to teasingly say: "You just love him, huh? The mister rock star Obama? Well, why don't you just go and marry him?"

Now, we all know President Obama's name. After Obama's mention of my school, maybe when people hear the name "Bard High School" they will recognize it and think of it as a symbol for students' critical engagement with their work. Hopefully they will strive to create more schools that challenge students and embrace the diverse population of the United States. President Obama, BHSEC would love to show you our "innovative approach" to higher education.