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First of the Robert P. Benedict Lectures in the History of Political Philosophy, October 15, 5:15 p.m., SAR 102

Week of 10 October 2003· Vol. VII, No. 5

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Bright minds, big curriculum
BU Academy celebrates 10 years as model for improving secondary education

By Tim Stoddard

This fall the BU Academy celebrates 10 years of educating high school students. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky


This fall the BU Academy celebrates 10 years of educating high school students. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky


In the 10 years since the Boston University Academy (BUA) first opened its doors to talented high school students, it has earned a reputation as an academic powerhouse, with what Boston magazine has called “the most impressive intellectual offerings in Boston.” To mark its 10-year anniversary, the BUA hosts a symposium celebrating alumni and faculty on October 10 at 4 p.m. in Jacob Sleeper Auditorium at CGS.

In his opening remarks at the event, Chancellor John Silber will reflect on the school he founded in 1993 as a model for improving American secondary education. BUA headmaster James Tracy will give a retrospective of the academy 10 years out, describing its unique curriculum and some of the stunning achievements of BUA students and alumni. BU trustee Elaine Kirshenbaum (CAS’71, SED’72, SPH’79), chair of the BUA Trustees Committee, will also discuss the school’s meteoric rise and future growth.

Four BUA faculty will then present original research they’ve completed through Metcalf fellowships, which include a 50 percent course reduction to allow teachers more time for research in their fields. The purpose of the fellowship, Tracy says, is not just to keep teachers on the cutting edge. “It’s also about developing pedagogies that can be used elsewhere,” he says. “We’d like to share these lessons with schools around the country to help them further innovations that are substantive and engaging.”

Since admitting 43 ninth and tenth graders in the fall of 1993, the BUA has been a model for other high schools seeking alternatives to the standard curricula, which funnel students into advanced placement courses. “Our mission is to be the best secondary school in New England, and possibly the nation,” Tracy says. “At the same time we’d like to use that excellence as a means of improving education for all students.” Unlike many laboratory high schools around the country, which are usually run through a university school of education, the BUA is an independent private school within BU.

The BUA’s talented students eat lunch in the GSU, do research at Mugar Memorial Library, and sit next to many BU freshmen in the classroom. After two years of Latin or classical Greek, academy juniors have the option of taking a modern foreign language at the University, along with an introductory BU biology course. Seniors are able to take four BU classes each semester, allowing them to graduate from high school with up to 40 college credits.

Every month for the past three years, a member of the BU faculty has given a lecture to the student body on some aspect of his or her research. Seniors engage BU professors one-on-one when they begin their mandatory 8,000-word thesis. Selecting a topic in September, students work closely with their BU advisor for the next seven months, reworking their papers until they meet college standards. “The professors who serve as advisors have been enormously generous,” Tracy says, “because they don’t get any kudos for doing this. It doesn’t count as an extra course for them; they don’t get extra pay; it doesn’t go into their tenure decisions. But most of them tell us that it’s been one of the most rewarding teaching experiences of their lives.”

The BUA is broadening its link to the University in other ways, too. The Huntington Theatre Company and the College of Fine Arts have recently awarded two BUA students a yearlong appointment in stage managing. The academy has also launched a pilot program that sends students to BU’s study abroad program in London for a few weeks over the summer to immerse themselves in Tudor history and Shakespeare. In a few years, the program may expand and become open to students from high schools around the country.

Omnivorous minds

While the BUA curriculum carries seniors upward to academic peaks, it starts with a broad foundation spread out over the humanities and sciences. “The idea of the school was to be classically based and content-rich,” says Tracy, “to buck the trend toward process-oriented education and to emphasize teaching large quanta of information, so that students come out with a broad base of knowledge.”

The 156 BUA students, and 154 alumni, embrace the academic challenges with unusual fervor. “Our kids are extraordinarily capable, and they’re very well trained, too,” he says. “It’s that combination that I think distinguishes us. They bring an enormous amount of ability, but for the first time in their lives, they find themselves taught by teachers who bring them to the cusp of their ability.”

The “crackling intellectual ferment” that Tracy senses in the hallways of the school is also reflected on national standardized tests. The average combined SAT score for BUA seniors last year was 1430 out of a maximum 1600 (the national average was 1019), and the students taking University courses regularly perform as well as their BU peers. Yet despite their precocity, he says, the BUA students are also just nice kids who love to learn. “I don’t think of our students as nerds. I think of them as young people who have very high intelligence, but who love to learn. The students who fit here are the ones who come alive when given work that’s continually engaging.”

“The common element that our students bring is intellectual curiosity,” adds Nancy Goldsmith-Caruso, BUA assistant head of school. “One of the distinguishing features of the academy is that it allows our students to become whomever they’re going to develop into without the typical constraints that a high school environment can impose.”

According to Tracy, the rigorous academics do not encourage cutthroat competition. “Many of our students find for the first time in their lives that this is an environment where it’s safe to be intellectually curious,” he says. “I heard one student in the hallway last year saying to a group of students, ‘Oh don’t stop at the Inferno! You have to read Purgatorio and Paradiso too! Dante’s so great!”

The next decade

As the BUA continues to move ahead academically, it’s also going to be physically moving from its current home next to the BU Bridge to make room for the new School of Law building, slated for construction in 2005. It’s not clear yet where the school will move to, but Tracy says that it will likely be on the Charles River Campus. “We’re very pleased that the University is proud of the academy and wants to have a facility that is consonant with its role as one of the showcases of the excellence of Boston University,” he says.

Once relocated, the BUA plans to expand its eighth grade into an entire middle school program. “We’re really hoping to be able to attract, prepare, and retain students who come from economically and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds,” Goldsmith-Caruso says. “We feel that the middle school will provide the proper place for the additional work that they might need to do before tackling the upper school curriculum.”

Efforts are also ongoing to increase the amount of scholarship funding available to students. “We’re moving quite deliberately in the direction of increasing our scholarships to be able to be a completely need-blind meritocracy,” Tracy says. “We’re increasing the diversity of our student body, so that we can reach out to communities and constituencies that are more at risk in terms of their educational training before arriving here.”

When the BUA begins accepting younger students, Tracy says, the ideal candidates will not be just precocious. “For the high school, we have three admissions criteria: the kids have to be extraordinarily bright, they have to be students who love to learn, and they have to be nice kids. We want a school of bright kids who are good to each other and have fun together, kids whom we can trust. And I think we’re remarkably successful at that.”


10 October 2003
Boston University
Office of University Relations