By Jay Mathews
Like many teenagers, Heather Robinson usually is careful not to seem too eager to answer teachers' questions. The last thing she wants is to be labeled a nerd.
But in her government class this year, the senior at Alexandria's T.C. Williams High School is suddenly volunteering her thoughts on complex points of constitutional law without fear of appearing too brainy. After all, many of her classmates are doing exactly the same thing.
What's different about this class is that her teacher, Jack Esformes, has mixed together some of the school's most- and least-motivated students. Each of his five government classes includes both students planning to take the college-level Advanced Placement (AP) government exam and students who are there only because they need the course to graduate.
Robinson, who wants to go to nursing school and does not plan to take the AP test, said that because the AP students in the class are so quick to raise their hands, she no longer feels reluctant to do so. "It loosens us up a lot and makes us feel good because there is always that high expectation," she said.
Esformes' strategy is almost unheard of, educators say. At most American high schools, students applying to selective four-year colleges take AP and honors courses and rarely spend time in classes with students who plan to work after graduating or to attend trade schools or community colleges.
But Esformes, 52, has closed that social and academic gap by teaching at two different levels within the same classroom. His AP students read a different textbook and get different homework assignments and tests from the regular students. But all the class work is done together, and most of it involves small-group discussions on current issues.
The idea occurred to Esformes shortly after he arrived at T.C. Williams in 1990. He thought that encouraging a wide range of students to express their opinions would give dry civic classes new life. Besides, he said, "I did not feel I should be teaching representative democracy in elite surroundings. It seemed hypocritical to me."
So five years ago, he started inviting AP students to sign up for his regular government course, which is divided into five classes of 28 students each. His goal was to have each class consist of seven AP students and 21 regular students.
The mixed classes have become so popular that Esformes last fall had to use a lottery to pick the 35 AP students from among 66 applicants.
While the regular students have discovered that they like political debate, the advanced students say that hearing and responding to comments from a diverse group of classmates has deepened their understanding.
Elizabeth Moore, an AP student, said her friends who did not get into the course "are all pretty jealous." Instead of focusing on the textbook, she said, "Esformes relates everything to something that is going on in the country right now, and . . . I get to hear everyone's point of view."
Phil Arbolino, AP national associate director for the College Board in New York, said he has never before heard of a teacher mixing AP and non-AP students in this way.
The Alexandria teacher's experiment is significant at a time when high schools in many states are looking for ways to prepare below-average students for new graduation tests, some educators said.
"It demonstrates that there are ways to provide all students with far richer opportunities to learn without compromising the highest achievers," said UCLA professor Jeannie Oakes, who has studied the issue of grouping students by ability level.
Efforts to mix students at other high schools have often died because of resistance from college-bound students and their parents, who fear the courses would be slowed and diluted to help average students keep up. Esformes has avoided such opposition because the participation of the advanced students is voluntary. Each year, about 100 T.C. Williams students planning to take the AP government test enroll in a non-mixed class.
The AP students in Esformes' classes generally have done as well on the AP test as those who enroll in classes reserved just for them.
But some specialists, while applauding Esformes' methods, wonder if they will work in most classrooms. "It takes a superstar teacher -- rare -- or a thoughtfully designed curriculum -- even rarer," said John Hoven, co-president of the Gifted and Talented Association of Montgomery County.
"It is hard work," said Carolyn Callahan, a professor at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education. "The people who pull this off are really extraordinary."
Esformes considers it a daily struggle to stimulate classroom debates and keep them going. "Give me a break. Be good to me. Pleeasse!" he sometimes says, pleading in his New York accent for student responses.
He usually dramatizes political science concepts as problems presented to the class for solutions.
One recent day, he broke his second-period class into five small groups and asked each one to decide if the mayor of a fictional town should give a parade permit to the Ku Klux Klan. One of the groups held a spirited debate over the right of assembly vs. the dangers of civil disorder, with all but one of the students eventually voting to ban the Klan. Other groups reported different results.
Nearly every day, students say, something happens that proves the value of a mixed class. Aminata Ly, a non-AP student, said, "The AP students help out a lot because some of the work they can explain to us."
Zoe Schneller, another non-AP student, said she is exposed to far more viewpoints than she would be in a typical class. Among other things, she said, she has learned not to be as harsh in judging the actions of the U.S. government, after hearing immigrant students describe abuses in their native countries.
"It is one of my favorite classes," Schneller said. "What I really like is that if you understand one concept and I understand another, we can help each other."
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