Churchill High School, a leafy Potomac monument to good teaching and high achievement, is one of the best schools in the country, so Stephanie Park did not reject it immediately. She stayed the first two months of her freshman year, then went home and taught herself high school.
She enrolled in an independent, Columbia-based program for home-schoolers called the Learning Community. It did little more than offer reading lists and send a teacher once a year to see what she was up to. Her economist father saw that she did not need his help. When her piano teacher mother dared interfere, Park would ask her, very nicely, to go away please.
In the home-schooling movement, Park was a look-ma-no-hands extremist, and yet that is not what interests me most about her. I admit it is hard to resist the charm of a late-20th-century teenager following the path of 19th-century autodidacts like Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Doug-lass and Thomas Edison. But I think there are not many students who would be comfortable in such isolation. And as degrading as the high school social scene can be, it is important for American children to learn to deal with it.
What draws me to Park's story is the light it casts on one of today's most acidic educational issues -- special classes for the most motivated and intellectually precocious students. I don't much like the common term, "gifted classes" -- it leaves the impression that some are touched by God and others not. But whatever you call them, there are millions of children who could devour lessons more quickly and thoroughly than we allow them to. The question is what to do about them.
The usual approach is to put them in accelerated classes taught by the best teachers. This often incites bitter arguments about equity and elitism. The non-gifted classes frequently offer mediocre teaching and limp content. The best instructors -- those who know how to make the complicated simple and the dull exciting -- are reserved for students who need such help the least.
But what if we offered our fastest students a mini version of Stephanie Park High? Let them take some high school courses as independent studies, with textbooks they must read and final examinations they must take, but with the freedom to pursue their own notions of what is interesting and important and with a teacher occasionally available to answer questions.
Each could advance at his or her own speed. I wager in most cases this would be faster than in their old gifted classes. The school's most talented teachers would then have more time for students who need teaching.
When Park started her one-girl schoolhouse at age 13, she wondered if she had enough self-discipline. She was happy to avoid school-assigned busy work that cut into her violin practice time. She had neighbors and soccer teammates and fellow musicians at the Montgomery County Youth Orchestra for friendship. But she was daunted by the notion of dragging herself through subjects like biology, which seemed to her a memorization torture chamber.
To her surprise, the spark of adolescent curiosity, snuffed out in some previous classes, caught fire. She found the dreaded sciences full of unresolved questions that drew her swiftly through the textbooks and out to the many libraries she raided for contrarian thoughts. She fell in love with biology and astronomy, becoming almost as enamored of them as of her literary pinups, Milan Kundera and Albert Camus.
For her, Park High was a daily stroll on an unexplored planet, with side trips and backtracking whenever she liked. Her only concern, as she applied to the Juilliard School in New York, was that the standardized tests every high school student must take might punish her for having had too much fun. She needn't have worried. She scored a 670 on the Scholastic Assessment Test verbal section and 800 on math. On the SAT II subject tests she scored 730 in writing, 740 in literature and 710 in biology.
Many capable educators flinch at such stories. Like all conscientious bureaucrats, they fear chaos. Making independent study a standard part of high school sounds to them like the class comedian running for student council who promises to cut the school day to 90 minutes, including lunch.
I know a senior at a very fine suburban New York high school who asked to take Advanced Placement European history as an independent study because the regular class conflicted with Chinese. What the otherwise sensible adults running the social studies department said to her was: What would we do if everyone wanted to do something like that?
If the thought of a bright teenager adding self-taught challenges to her schedule frightens a department head, perhaps it is time to limit his power over such students. Stephanie Park is happily off to Juilliard this fall. High school students need not be encouraged to dive off a curricular cliff as she did, but allowing a few long leaps would not hurt.
Jay Mathews's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.