Isabel Chumfong ’03, Lily Han ’03, and Mary “Maudie” Hampden ’03 all just started their junior years at Yale.
And they’re only 17 years old.
The three are all transfer students from Simon’s Rock College of Bard, a liberal arts college designed for students of high school age. The western Massachusetts school, which accepts students who did not fit into the typical high school model, has developed a tradition of sending its kids to Yale, including the three this fall.
Located on 200 acres in the Berkshire Hills in Great Barrington, Mass., the college draws students who are technically “high school drop-outs” and begin college after only a couple of years of high school. At 15 or 16 years old, the students who enter Simon’s Rock begin real and very rigorous college work.
Simon’s Rock offered these students academic challenges that they did not find in their original high schools given their intellect and maturity. All three were drawn to Simon’s Rock by both the academic possibilities available and a merit scholarship that provided each of these women a full scholarship to Simon’s Rock.
“For the first time, I faced academic challenges (at Simon’s Rock),” Hampden said. “I met a lot of people who I considered to be child prodigies, but I would not consider myself a child prodigy.”
Hampden said that she not been to a school for more than two consecutive years, instead trying different educational alternatives from home schooling to science magnet schools.
“My parents were very accepting of me saying that I needed something more challenging,” Hampden said.
Simon’s Rock worked for Hampden, and many other students are seeking a similar experience. Founded in 1964, Simon’s Rock has passed its ideal capacity, with 407 students. Inquiries about the enrolling in the school quadrupled last year, said Ann Black, Simon’s Rock’s director of external affairs. This year, another school, based on Simon’s Rock, was opened in Brooklyn, Bard High School Early College.
While Simon’s Rock remains the only college exclusively for younger students, this new non-residential school in Brooklyn is a testament to Simon’s Rock growing success.
“Simon’s Rock stands as a successful model for an alternative to American high school, and the New York model will prove that,” Black said. “It is no longer an experiment; it is a successful model that people feel comfortable replicating.”
More than half of Simon’s Rock students transfer to another college after earning their associate’s degree.
“I probably would have stayed at Simon’s Rock if I wasn’t studying engineering,” Chumfong said. “Once you leave Simon’s Rock with a B.A., you have your pick of grad schools.”
The very diverse and beautiful campus was hard to leave for these Simon’s Rock alumni. Hampden said that there is a very activist sector on campus, and the students at Simon’s Rock describe themselves as “left of left.”
“Simon’s Rock is not this concentration of IQ in the woods,” Han said. “I can’t imagine what kind of person I’d be if I stayed in high school.”
For these exceptionally mature students, the transition to college at 15 years old was not always easy. Hampden said leaving home at such a young age was a slight obstacle because she and her brothers are particularly close in age. The transfer to a larger four-year college is the next step.
“The biggest hurdles that people face when they transfer to another college are social,” Hampden said. “People look at you differently because a lot of people don’t know about alternatives in education.”
Hampden and Chumfong both said that they came to Yale because they were limited at Simon’s Rock by the size of the school, and their interest in studying science. Hampden, who is now an electrical engineering major, said she was initially attracted to Yale by the Cognitive Science Department.
Last year, 11 students applied to Yale from Simon’s Rock. Four were accepted, and three enrolled at Yale. The University has accepted candidates from Simon’s Rock for more than a decade, and they are “always strong,” said Richard Shaw, dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid.
The relationship between Simon’s Rock and Yale also helps in transfer of credits from Simon’s Rock. Hampden was able to transfer 18 credits from Simon’s Rock, the maximum number Yale will accept from any college.
“Some people really have to fight for their credits,” Hampden said. “It depends largely on the relationship between the schools. The relationship between Yale and Simon’s Rock has been particularly strong.”
Yale officials said they are seeing more and more applicants from non-traditional educational backgrounds.
“I think [home schooling] is a growing industry partially out of frustration with secondary education,” Shaw said. “I would say that we are seeing an upward trend in home schooled candidates and all kinds of hybrids of this.”
These three students see their educational history less as an anomaly and more as part of a greater movement in America to address educational system deficiencies.
“There is a serious movement to reform and revitalize the American educational system to meet students’ needs,” Chumfong said. “We are the guinea pigs.”