Wilbur Cross students tackle Yale coursework

With plastic bags tied around his legs and feet to keep them dry, Noah Bate crinkled as he bolted out the door of Wilbur Cross High School, hopped on his bike and sped toward Yale’s campus in the rain. Within minutes of finishing a high school exam, Bate took his seat in a Yale intermediate Chinese class.

Bate is one of 36 Wilbur Cross students in the “College Before College Program,” which allows New Haven public high school students to take free courses at Yale and other local colleges. Wilbur Cross, the largest public high school in New Haven, has 11 students taking Yale classes this semester. Though three frustrated students dropped out before the semester’s end — the total used to be 14 — professors at the University and Wilbur Cross students and teachers said the program is valuable because it expands students’ course options and exposes them to college life.

“Taking college classes is a great transition from high school, to see what it’s really like,” said Linda Powell, who coordinates Wilbur Cross’ Independent Study and Seminar Program, an umbrella program that includes College Before College. “It’s one of the options for students who want to go above and beyond their regular schedule.”

Jack Gillette, who directed the College Before College Program at Yale between 2000 and 2003 — his office calls it the New Haven and Area High School Program, said the initiative strengthens Yale’s relationship with New Haven.

“It’s just a way in which Yale shares some of the resources it has with the community it lives in,” he said.

Since its inception in 1974, the College Before College Program has increased in popularity citywide and at Wilbur Cross. Between the 2000-01 and 2003-04 school years alone, the annual number of Wilbur Cross participants jumped from 47 to 82. Cross consistently has the most participants of any New Haven school: last year, over 30 percent of College Before College students attended Wilbur Cross. This semester, 19 Wilbur Cross students are taking classes at Gateway Community College and six are taking classes at Southern Connecticut State University.

To qualify for a Yale class, Wilbur Cross students must be a sophomore or older, score an 1100 on their SAT or PSAT, and maintain a B-plus average in high school. Students must also already be enrolled in the Independent Study and Seminar Program, a citywide initiative that offers public high school students access to academic opportunities outside school, provided they pass one of several tests. Students who qualify can take any Yale class, as long as they have completed the prerequisites and the class fits their schedule. Tuition is free, although students must pay for books and transportation.

At Wilbur Cross, one of the most diverse high schools in New Haven, the students who take courses at Yale are not representative of the student body. The school is around 43 percent Hispanic and 43 percent black, but no Hispanic or black students took Yale classes this semester. Of the 11 students who took classes at the University, nine were white and two were Asian-American. The Yale group is also more affluent on average than other students at the school: while nearly 60 percent of the school qualified for free or reduced cost lunches last year, only two of the 11 students taking Yale classes this semester did. Not surprisingly, every senior who took a Yale class last year went on to college — though one deferred her admission — while 78 percent of the entire senior class was college-bound.

“I wish it could be more universally advertised at the school,” Wilbur Cross senior Mara Revkin said of the College Before College Program. “[Cross has] a lot of opportunities that not everyone takes advantage of.”

For those who do sign up, though, the program has largely been a success. This semester, students in the program mostly chose subjects not offered at Wilbur Cross, such as astronomy, sociology and advanced calculus. Bate, a junior, could not find Chinese language and culture classes, so he took them at Yale.

“It’s become so obvious that China is rising in prominence,” Bate said. “It just struck me as a useful thing to know about in the future.”

Several students said they initially felt apprehensive about taking Yale classes, but they quickly became more comfortable. The work load could be “overwhelming,” but students grew accustomed to that, too.

“There’s this pressure to engage in the discussion and say something, like, not really incompetent,” Revkin said of her sociology seminar last spring. “It was intimidating in the beginning … It was really rewarding in the end.”

Revkin said she felt like an “imposter,” and Bate labeled himself an “outsider.” But they said Yale students and professors were friendly and helpful. Revkin’s sociology professor even wrote her a college recommendation.

French professor Marie-Helene Girard said she enjoyed teaching Revkin and another Wilbur Cross student this fall.

“The two high school students were very well treated by other Yale students and well integrated in the class,” said Girard, whose daughter attends Wilbur Cross and takes Portuguese at Yale. “Both of them were very strong students.”

Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations professor Ayala Dvoretzky said teaching Hebrew to three Wilbur Cross students was overall a positive experience.

“Two of the three I had were very comfortable in the class,” she said. “It depends on the personality of the student.”

A major challenge for Wilbur Cross students is finding a class that fits their packed schedules. On Mondays and Wednesdays, junior Heddy Ben-Atar squeezes in a Yale philosophy class at 11:30 a.m. between honors pre-calculus and an after-school theater program. With continuous commitments from 7:45 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on those days, she rarely eats a sit-down lunch.

Officially, Wilbur Cross bars students from changing their high school schedule to accommodate Yale classes. But in practice, several teachers allow students to miss all or part of a class if they make up the work. Barbara Sasso, a Wilbur Cross English teacher, overlooks absences because she sees the value of taking a Yale class. She asks only that students learn the material they miss.

“There are some intricate facts about poetry and meter that I don’t want to teach twice, believe me,” she said.

Because Wilbur Cross students in the College Before College Program must meet academic requirements, they tend to do well in Yale classes. Of the 19 Wilbur Cross students at Yale last semester, seven got A’s, seven got B’s and five got C’s. Still, some students find the experience difficult.

Ben-Atar said she had “a lot of trouble” in her introductory architecture class this fall. She struggled to meet the TA’s writing standards, and she remembers “feeling very inadequate.” After working with the TA, she began getting B-pluses on papers.

Frustrated students can choose to drop their college classes. Senior Eric Budde, one of three Wilbur Cross students who dropped a Yale class this semester, was not enjoying his evolutionary biology class, and he wanted to focus on other things. Budde plays flute in a jazz band and at restaurants, and he takes Advanced Placement classes at Wilbur Cross. Dropping biology was easy, Budde said, and the class will not appear on his transcript.

Revkin, who has taken three classes at Yale, decided not to take a fourth in her last semester at Wilbur Cross. She said she felt stressed by the college application process, and she needed some “breathing room.” The captain of the tennis team and the coordinator of a tutoring program, Revkin added that she wanted to focus on her activities at high school.

“I want to feel as much a part of the school and the community as I can,” Revkin said, adding that she felt “self-conscious” talking about Yale to her high school peers. “Taking the classes [at Yale] was great, but I felt like it was this dual existence.”

Still, Revkin is glad she enrolled in the three courses. She so enjoyed her cultural anthropology class that she is considering majoring in anthropology in college.

Gillette, who directs Yale’s Teacher Preparation Program, said he sees no downsides to the College Before College Program.

“See what you can do,” Gillette said, as if inviting Wilbur Cross students to Yale. “Your life isn’t on the line here.”

Eric Budde, a senior at Wilbur Cross, speaks to an advisor. Budde took ‘Introduction to Cognitive Science’ last fall as part of the school’s College Before College Program.
Gillian Gillers
Eric Budde, a senior at Wilbur Cross, speaks to an advisor. Budde took ‘Introduction to Cognitive Science’ last fall as part of the school’s College Before College Program.

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