A small network of coveted public high schools where students can earn an associate degree by the time they graduate is vying to launch a campus in the Bronx through a new competition to open 20 city schools.

Bard High School Early College, which operates schools in Queens and Manhattan, has been eyeing a move to the Bronx for years. Now, after expanding to cities including Newark, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C., Bard has formally applied to open a Bronx campus, one of roughly 200 initial applications angling for a piece of the $31 million push to open or overhaul 40 schools across New York City. 

“We were excited about the opportunity to propose Bard in the Bronx — that’s something we’ve wanted to do for some time,” said Clara Botstein, a Bard official who helps oversee their early college programs across the country. In New York City, “there are way more applicants who are qualified than we can admit.”

Despite Bard’s popularity, high graduation rates, and track record of giving students a head start on a four-year college degree, it’s unclear whether they’ll earn the right to open a new high school. Education department officials initially said winning schools may not have selective admissions, yet Bard’s New York campuses have strict entrance criteria so students can prove they’re ready for accelerated coursework — and they enroll disproportionately fewer black and Hispanic students and those from low-income families than the city average. 

The fate of Bard’s application also gets at the heart of a broader debate playing out across New York City about whether schools that weed out students who struggle academically have a place in a public school system at all. Chancellor Richard Carranza has said selective admissions is “antithetical” to public education.

The competition, announced last month, is geared toward “innovative” models that also serve “historically underserved students.” Winners will be eligible for up to $500,000 in a one-time grant. But officials have said little about what criteria they’ll use to evaluate applicants, and an education department spokesperson would not comment on whether new schools could have flexibility to screen students, despite a press release last month that said schools with selective admissions will not be allowed.

Officially called “Imagine Schools,” the initiative is backed by $16 million from the city, $10 million from XQ, an organization that has pushed to re-think high schools across the country, and $5 million from the Robin Hood Foundation, an anti-poverty nonprofit favored by Wall Street donors. (XQ is funded by Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, which also funds Chalkbeat through the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.)

Bard leaders say their admissions policies are essential since students earn a high school and associate degree in four years, and they must be ready to complete accelerated work. To get into Bard’s Manhattan or Queens high schools, students must have a GPA of at least 85, have no more than 10 unexcused absences or latenesses for the school year, show up for an interview, and complete separate math and writing assessments created by Bard officials. 

As with some other screened schools across the city, those admissions standards have contributed to underrepresentation of certain student groups. At the Manhattan campus, 38% of students are white, according to preliminary figures from the school’s current register, compared with 15% citywide. Just over 32% of students are black or Hispanic, a group that makes up about 67% of students citywide. Last school year, the Queens and Manhattan campuses enrolled just one English learner each.

“We’re screening for motivation and intellectual curiosity — the program is hard,” Botstein said, adding that officials think of it partly as a college admissions process since most students wind up with a two-year degree. “At the same time, we do want to serve a higher concentration of students of color, especially black and Hispanic students.”

Bard officials have said they are open to having a discussion with city officials about tweaking their admissions system and pointed to recent efforts designed to boost diversity. 

School officials, for example, have started to offer their writing and math admissions assessments in the Bronx so students don’t have to travel as part of its broader recruitment there. Its Queens high school has started prioritizing 63% of its seats for low-income students through a city diversity admissions program. (The Manhattan campus does not participate in the program.) Officials also emphasized that the ninth grade classes at both of its city high schools have a larger share of black or Hispanic students than the schools as a whole.

Opening a location in the Bronx could aid diversity efforts, Bard officials said, and offer an additional strong high school option there. There are fewer opportunities for accelerated coursework in the Bronx and offering two years of college credit at no cost can be a big help for many low-income or first-generation college students, they added.

Siska Brutsaert, the dean of studies at Bard’s Manhattan high school who helped craft the proposal for a Bronx campus, said there is demand in the Bronx, but the distance to Queens or Lower Manhattan can be a barrier. “There are students who are taking the bus to the subway to another subway” — a commute that can stretch close to two hours, she said.

As part of its application, Bard would integrate the school into the fabric of the Bronx community, Brutsaert added. Officials are in talks with local community organizations to offer academic tutoring, internship placements, or even partnerships with hospitals so students could learn first hand about medical careers.

“We think that the early college model is innovative and bringing it to the Bronx is bold,” Brutsaert said, referring to the Imagine School’s embrace of innovation. “Parents are dying for this.”

They also have the support of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., whose office has been in contact with Bard officials. 

The borough president has consistently called for the expansion of accelerated learning options for every grade in The Bronx,” John DeSio, a spokesman for Diaz, wrote in an email. “Our office would encourage the Department of Education to bring a new Bard campus to The Bronx, just like they have in other boroughs.

Education department officials will soon decide whether the first round of applicants will move on to create more detailed proposals. The first group of winning teams are slated to be announced in May and will open in September 2021.

Matt Gonzales, the director of the integration and innovation initiative at NYU’s Metro Center, said the Bard model is “innovative” and “thoughtful” and could benefit Bronx families. But he cautioned against replicating their current admissions model, arguing that schools like Bard should be prepared to serve a much broader range of students, regardless of their academic records.

“We need to make sure we’re providing support systems and resources for students who have not historically had access to this type of school,” he said. “I think any student can be successful at any one of our schools given the right support and resources.”

This story has been updated to reflect the most recent enrollment figures for Bard’s Manhattan campus.