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Simon's Rock offers `maverick' high-schoolers early college

`WITH his teas, and cakes, and ices, Prufrock is forced to think about his other self - his social self,'' a student comments. ``So he's having a debate with himself in this poem?'' the teacher asks his class of 14 college sophomores.

``Yeah, it's like an indictment of social forces ... like a perverse sort of awareness of his indecisiveness,'' another student adds.

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This discussion of T.S. Eliot's ``The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock'' is taking place in a late-afternoon seminar at Simon's Rock College - a discussion, like many at the small school, that will continue over dinner and into the evening. Yet, unlike most college students, this group has an average age of 16. They've come to this 275-rolling-acre campus isolated in the leafy Berkshires of western Massachusetts to steep themselves in an academic program more serious than what they've found in high school.

With 300 students and a faculty (90 percent have PhDs) ratio of 10 to 1, Simon's Rock offers an intensive college liberal arts program for 11th- and 12th-graders seeking alternatives to featherweight courses in their own high schools or the mentally dissipating social pressures there. High school sophomores and juniors can apply, and graduate with a college A.A. in two years or a B.A. in four.

The environment is set up specifically for 16- to 19-year-olds. The academics are college-level, but the social and living arrangements are for younger students. Adults live in the dorms, and students eat and work closely with them. ``The big thing here,'' says U Ba Win, provost of Simon's Rock, ``is that the students are taken seriously. Most of them are risk takers - think of themselves as mavericks - and think nothing of challenging a teacher in class.''

Individualism is indeed evident on campus. Students with mohawk haircuts and jeans blend with others wearing trim hair and Izod sweaters. About half say they attend Simon's Rock because they need an alternative, while half come because they want one. As one put it: ``I would have been up a creek without this school. I was drifting before. But when I came here it was like ... reality ... hit me, and I knew I had to work. Now I'm on the dean's list.''

But the way Simon's Rock targets its direct mail recruiting at students with high SAT scores suggests that those who come can do challenging work. ``The admissions office is careful to screen kids for whom the school wouldn't be appropriate,'' says independent educational consultant Joan Tager of Milborn, N.J.

This was not always the case, however. Formed 20 years ago, Simon's Rock took on a distinctly counterculture flavor in the mid '70s. The curriculum became free-floating and elective, and there were reports of heavy drug use among some students (typical for many schools at the time).

All this changed in 1979, when Simon's Rock - in order to reestablish its academic stature - merged with Bard College, one of the more innovative schools in the country, located 50 miles away in upstate New York. The school underwent a $2 million faculty and curriculum overhaul, and incorporated many ideas now standard in school reform efforts.

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A unique ``core'' course of study, based heavily on writing, was established: Freshmen, along with taking an eight-day writing and thinking seminar before beginning school, must take composition during their first semester. Two of their first four semesters also include a ``Great Books'' seminar, as well as a seminar titled ``Cultural Perspectives'' examining Western civilization from different cultural viewpoints. Foreign language is also a requirement.

The idea, as dean of academic affairs Bernard Rogers says, is to have a ``common framework of discussion outside of class - but not restricted to classics alone.'' The emphasis is on interdisciplinary thinking. To make the point, in fact, all faculty members teach a ``Great Books'' seminar. ``It's important for students to see a historian grappling with a novel,'' Dr. Rogers states.

Fourteen papers a semester is the average load - one a week. This contrasts starkly with recent studies showing that public high school juniors average only two to four papers a year. ``We had a return to the work ethic seven years ago,'' says U Ba Win. ``[We] became as rigorous and unflaky as possible.''

``The main idea is simple - academic acceleration,'' says Bard College president Leon Botstein.

``It's a good school for a select group of kids,'' says Ms. Tager, ``those who are capable, motivated, and reasonably mature.''

The school is one of a few in the country (Princeton is another) where seniors spend a year doing a major thesis paper - one reason student Leslie Sander transferred back to Simon's Rock from Bryn Mawr. Yet of the 300 freshmen, only about 35 stay to graduate. ``People who don't break loose are often branded `emotionally immature' by other students,'' says one sophomore who plans to leave.

One complaint lodged by a junior was the lack of business-related courses, and the bias against them. ``The faculty talks about being free and open, but when we wanted to start a young entrepreneurs club, they said no. ... We looked too capitalistic, I think. But they finally let us have one.''

Tager was impressed that the Simon's Rock admissions officers don't try to ``sell the school.'' They ``really do counsel parents and students'' about whether this is the right place to go.

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