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How they step on the gas

Extreme students demand extreme measures. Reva Klein reports on an American way of meeting needs: alternative high schools for drop-outs and fast-tracking for the brightest. While in Britain fast-tracking is the latest buzzword in New Labour's education policy, in the United States it is at least 20 years old and has almost as many permutations as it has years under its belt.

Missouri's Parkway School District is recognised as a model of good practice for its accelerated programme, both within St Louis County and also nationally. It operates a multi-tiered achievement system, in which every child has the opportunity to move from one level to another. One fifth of the entire student population in the district is in an accelerated programme of one kind or another, within the mainstream system. This includes an entire primary school designated as "accelerated" as part of a national programme.

Parkway's curriculum co-ordinator Nancy Rathjen explains. "When accelerated learning was first introduced 20-odd years ago, it was for the purpose of tracking [streaming] students into separate groups. Now there's a different educational philosophy based on the principle that our society is heterogeneous and that our schools should reflect this."

Separating students into streams is a contentious issue in a school district such as Parkway, where 3,400 black students are bussed in from the impoverished inner city as part of a desegregation programme introduced in 1980. Parkway has the largest number of bussed city pupils - 16 per cent of the total pupil population - of any of the participating 16 school districts in St Louis County.

The issue of desegregation is a hot one in St Louis, with the State of Missouri proposing to phase out the scheme over the next five years. Opposition to its closure is intense and has led to lengthy hearings in the Federal District Court. Nancy Rathjen admits that accelerated learning "can be a way of pulling residential [mainly middle-class] students out of classes of the bussed-in [black inner-city] students. We've made strenuous efforts to ensure that this doesn't happen, but we still have large numbers of residential children in accelerated classes as opposed to very few non-residents."

Indeed, some accelerated programmes in the district are characterised by their lack of black students. At Parkway West, one of the four massive, if uninspiringly named, high schools in the equally massive school district (the largest in St Louis county), the majority of children fall into the classification of average achievers, as they do at the other schools. But between a third and a half of the senior class (Year 12, the final year of high school) are fast tracking in at least one class.

There are three tiers in the accelerated learning set-up at West. The most radical and intellectually stretching is QUEST, the state-regulated Gifted and Talented Programme, in which children of exceptional capabilities (determined by IQ tests) devise their own projects, on which they work independently. These are taught alongside the students' six other courses, and advised by special teachers. Primary schools may run Gifted and Talented programmes from kindergarten upwards.

Next comes the Honours programme, which 20 per cent of Parkway West students take for one or more classes. This is a voluntary programme of more challenging work that requires a teacher's recommendation. It is not unusual for students to take only one honours class in a subject in which they excel. It involves receiving more demanding work in a separate class.

The highest level is called Advanced Placement which, curiously, doesn't require a teacher's recommendation. AP curricula have their own courses, equivalent to second-year college level. Only the most highly motivated students volunteer for this programme, those who can keep up with the pace and the homework. A growing number of colleges will allow students who have taken AP exams to be awarded college credits; some students are allowed to skip a year.

Don Ribbing, AP English teacher, has 120 students out of 400 Year 12s taking AP English. "Such a large number is unheard of. It means that all of these students want the challenge. Of course, it's true that a fair number are in AP because their parents have pushed them into it. But the critical thing about the AP programme, when it's handled correctly, is that it can do so much good for those in it and for the school as a whole. It can elevate the tone of a school, like a yeast. It's up to us to not let it become a divisive tool. If it does, we'll scrap it."

To what extent measurable social divisiveness and inequalities would be tolerated is not clear. The paucity of African-Americans in the AP programme is glaringly obvious. But differentiated learning and the potential for children to move into more challenging groups is making a huge impact on the socially mixed student population of Parkway schools. As Nancy Rathjen points out, it is keeping some high-achieving students in the state system who otherwise would be going to more challenging private schools.

It can have a trickle-down effect, too. As one student quoted by West's head of English, said, "The school makes some kids as good as they can be, others as good as they want to be and others better than they ever thought they could be."

Deepika Polineni 17

A lot of AP students hang around together but my social group isn't necessarily all from AP classes. When you're in Honours classes, you're already in a very different environment with different attitudes towards work and your teacher than in ordinary classes. In my first year I was in a regular physical science class, where I could only move as fast as the slowest student. I'd be tremendously opposed to going back to mixed ability.

Bahar Hashemi 16

The others in school look up to us rather than down on us. They think we're smart.

Tanvir Rahman 17

I'm doing four AP classes this year, which means doing four exams for those courses as well as my six regular class exams within a two-week span. It's at times like this when the stress load is too high. My parents pushed me to do APs. When I'm done, I'll have 45 credit units out of a total of 180, which means I can start at Stanford Medical School as a sophomore [second year].

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