PORTLAND, Ore. -- The assigned readings for Aurora del Val's students last week were sections of the writings of Greek philosopher Plato and black nationalist Malcolm X. For 90 minutes her 14 young scholars wrestled verbally with twin paradoxes: Plato's insistence that prisoners in a cave might find the shadows on the wall more real than the outside world, and Malcolm's declaration that his intellectual freedom began when he entered prison.
Prodded by their teacher's questions, the students grappled with the issues of appearance and reality, freedom and slavery, like thousands of college students before them.
The oddity is that these teenagers were all high school dropouts, kids who had walked out or been tossed out of their previous schools, kids with attitude problems, behavioral problems, drug or alcohol problems, kids whose teachers and families had often marked them off as hopeless losers.
And here they were in a voluntary program, run by the Portland Community College, where a single breach of discipline -- an unexcused absence, an unfinished assignment, a blown test -- would mean automatic expulsion, but where the curriculum was stiff enough to challenge an undergraduate at any of Portland's elite private colleges.
The Gateway to College program, now in its fifth year, is one of eight "early college high school" programs supported in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and four other charities. They represent diverse approaches to a problem drawing increasing attention from the Bush administration and governors of both parties: how to make high school education more rigorous and ease the transition from high school to college or the workplace.
This weekend in Washington there will be an "education summit" sponsored by the National Governors Association and Achieve Inc., a business-backed school reform group trying to stiffen high school graduation requirements and improve the quality of the workforce.
Their concern is prompted by the fact that too many students are dropping out of high school, bored or dissatisfied with what it offers, and too many of those who graduate lack the skills needed for well-paying jobs or, if they go on to college, need remedial classes in English and math.
The Gateway experiment suggests that even for the hardest cases -- teenagers with few credits, low grade-point averages and a host of personal problems -- the challenge of a tough curriculum, backed by skillful teaching in small classes and plenty of personal counseling, can be a path to success.
Each new cohort of 20 or fewer students spends a semester together, with intensive focus on basic skills, including study techniques and classroom communication. Bonding during this term builds mutual support and helps motivate students to keep up their work. "They've become like family," del Val said of her students. "They are real supportive of each other."
After one term, the students move into the regular community college adult classes, with the goal not only of completing their 12th-grade requirements but picking up enough college credits to qualify for an associate (two-year) degree.
The program has been judged a success. Among the first 600 students enrolled, attendance in the first term averaged 92 percent, and 71 percent successfully completed it. Almost nine out of 10 continued in regular community college classes, working toward their diplomas and two-year degrees.
The Gates Foundation was impressed enough to double the original $5 million grant last year, enabling Gateway to expand its national network from eight campuses to 17, including one in Maryland's Montgomery County.
But the most important testimonials come from the students whose lives have been changed. Kathy Kraus, dressed all in black and wearing a bowler hat, said, "The teachers here have encouraged me to write poems and essays. I never had that."
Scott Weidlich said he was being home-schooled but his parents "never really cared and I wasn't motivated." Jessica Smidt said, "My old classes were so full of kids and most of the teachers didn't want to be there. Here, you don't get lost in the crowd."
Chris Marks said, "My high school was swamped with drugs -- and so was I. Here, I feel a real sense of responsibility. You're not being watched. It's your ass, and your life, and you either make the most of this opportunity or you don't. It's up to you."
Del Val, who almost abandoned teaching after seeing how "overwhelmed and overworked" her friends were, shuffling students through five large classes a day in typical high schools in California, said it is enormously satisfying to see the way students respond in this environment.
It is clear that even high school dropouts are capable of much more than most of them are being asked to do. The question is whether the country can afford to waste their talents.