We’re pleased to announce the winners of The Nation‘s fifth annual Student Writing Contest.
This year we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing how their education has been compromised by budget cuts and tuition hikes. We received hundreds of submissions from high school and college students in forty-four states. We chose one college and one high school winner and ten finalists total. The winners are Amanda Lewan of Michigan State University and Melissa Parnagian of Old Bridge High School in New Jersey. The winners receive a cash award of $1,000 and the finalists, $200 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. Many thanks to The Nation Institute for its generosity in making this contest possible. — The Editors
The day that the course catalogue comes out at my school is like Christmas morning. Almost as soon as the catalogues are put out, they disappear, and my friends and I run through the hall frantically circling all of the classes that we want to take. Instead of worrying about choosing between AP English and AP Government, we’re excited to see that "Novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky" and a political science course called "Equality" are being offered.
My high school, Bard High School Early College (BHSEC), offers a nontraditional alternative to high school in New York City. Founded as a collaboration between Bard College and the New York City Department of Education, BHSEC is a free, public school that challenges students to complete all of their high school requirements by the end of tenth grade. During the last two years of high school I was able to choose from a plethora of onsite college courses taught by college professors, many of whom have doctorate degrees in their field of study. BHSEC graduates receive both a Regents diploma from New York State and an Associate of Arts degree from Bard College equivalent to sixty transferrable college credits. For evidence of BHSEC’s success since its founding in 2001, one needs to look no farther than the significant percentage of my graduating class of 2010 who will be the first in their family to go to college.
However, the cost of maintaining BHSEC’s unique program is high. In order to maintain its college program, BHSEC requires approximately an additional $4,000 per student. Since BHSEC does not charge tuition, it relies on city, state and federal grants as well as independent parent fundraising efforts to close the financial gap. As a result of this, each year BHSEC is directly impacted by cuts to the education budget. In the past two years, when BHSEC has had to cut its budget, art and music programs have been in the most danger of being eliminated, leaving BHSEC’s highly motivated academic student body with fewer creative outlets.
BHSEC’s enrollment has increased significantly in the last nine years, but its funding has not. Since BHSEC’s funds are limited, existing BHSEC faculty have had to teach more classes, meaning that fewer sections of classes are offered overall. This also means that teachers have to divide their time among more students. This has made a significant difference at BHSEC, where classes are usually capped at twenty students (most public high school classes in New York City have over thirty) and students in high and low academic standing alike meet frequently with professors one-on-one outside of class. BHSEC also emphasizes discussion rather than lecture as its method of teaching, and expects that students will develop critical thinking tools by challenging one another’s ideas. Having larger classes makes this goal more difficult to achieve, as each student has less of an opportunity to contribute to the discussion.
Last summer in a speech to the NAACP, President Obama lauded BHSEC as an innovative program for the rest of the United States to look to. Yet BHSEC’s tight financial situation raises an important question to think about in American education: how can we offer successful, innovative public education programs in a climate where financial resources are so limited? Finding a solution to this problem will require a significant shift away from investing in students’ test scores and toward funding programs like BHSEC that challenge students to critically think. As a BHSEC student, discussing notions of Lockean consent with a professor who had just published a book on religious toleration in Israel was exponentially more valuable to me than learning how to answer a question on an AP or Regents exam. Learning how to build an argument by examining contradicting viewpoints meant more to me than learning how to construct a standard five-paragraph essay.
What I love about BHSEC is that I am not the only one who shares this sentiment. All of the students, teachers and parents in my school also embrace a love for learning beyond exam scores and report cards, (I have frequently had conversations about Kafka with friends over peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at lunch) and each member of the school community is deeply invested in everyone else’s learning. I have been tremendously lucky to benefit from this school-wide commitment to learning, and I hope that both educators and legislators alike will realize the extremely high potential that a program like BHSEC has. Once this happens, students all across the United States will be able to share that Christmas morning feeling, and unwrap the gift of their education.