In Sally Uribe's classroom this summer, there are no textbooks, no homework is assigned and no grades will be issued. And please don't call it summer school.
Through a series of unconventional techniques, Uribe and teachers like her throughout Fairfax County are experimenting with a new program -- dubbed the "accelerated learning program" -- intended to help average and below-average students get ahead. Instead of cramming extra facts and numbers into her students' minds, Uribe wants to teach them how to learn.
"They're bright kids, they're street-smart kids," she said. "They don't survive out there without being bright. We've got to find a way to capitalize on that."
Frustrated by years of stagnant minority test scores, Fairfax school leaders are giving Uribe and others a license to experiment this summer. Unlike traditional remedial summer schools that serve students who have flunked, these three-hour-a-day, five-week sessions are designed to teach average and below-average students critical thinking, communication skills and classroom confidence.
The experiment, serving 725 students in 12 elementary and intermediate schools, reflects the increasing pressure on educators locally and throughout the nation to reduce the chronic disparity in the achievement of white students and their black and Hispanic peers.
Open to students of all races who scored at or below the national average on standardized tests but did not fail classes, the Fairfax program mirrors one started in Montgomery County last year with similar students, methods and goals. After just one year, Montgomery educators said, participating students improved by 11 percentiles in reading and 17 percentiles in math.
In Fairfax, the new program has been derided by some black community leaders as too little, too late. While the program is fine for what it does, critics say, it is hardly a panacea and serves too few students.
On the front lines at Walt Whitman Intermediate School in Fort Hunt, teachers said they're glad just to have something to try.
Located along the Route 1 corridor, Whitman reflects the growing socioeconomic diversity in that part of the county. Roughly half of its 720 students are white; the others are black, Hispanic or Asian. Some students hail from half-million-dollar houses on the Potomac River; others go home to motels or trailers.
Uribe, her partner Susan Paone and Uribe's 19-year-old daughter, Amalia, serving as a teacher's aide, are trying to teach 13 rising eighth-graders how to think critically and how to communicate, so they are better prepared to succeed in the fall. They use magazines, educational computer games and a twice-weekly round-robin discussion in which students run their own exchange.
Earlier this week, for example, the students read and talked about a Francis Bacon passage on revenge.
They talked about whether revenge was ever acceptable, whether governments should take revenge, and whether parents should. One student recalled how his father whipped him with a belt when he set a fire in the back yard. There were long intervals of silence in which no one talked, but Uribe bided her time waiting for the students to pick it up.
Finally, the fidgeting, uncomfortable students decided they didn't care much for the topic.
"I think we should talk about something that interests us," declared Nate Barfield, 13. Without interruption from the teacher, Nate asked his classmates if they agreed, and they did. "Then we should make a list of the whole week of things we should talk about."
Uribe smiled and let him go.
The point wasn't to teach students about revenge, but to get them to open up and take charge of the discussion, to think about something critically, formulate ideas and challenge other notions. In this case, students who normally keep quiet in the back of classes were learning to speak up and participate, and the teachers considered that a victory.
"We really aren't sure how it's going to come off yet because it really goes counter to what teachers are used to," said Rudolph Wiggins, the district's minority achievement coordinator.
Superintendent Robert R. Spillane proposed the idea this spring -- his first major minority achievement initiative in five years on the job -- after the county NAACP attacked the county's previous efforts in October as a "total and consistent failure."
Initiated at the last minute, school officials scraped together funding during the middle of a budget year, hastily prepared a curriculum, trained teachers, and scaled the program back from the 30 schools and 2,000 students originally envisioned to 12 schools and 1,200 slots. Even then, only 725 students were recruited.
School Board member Robert E. Frye (At Large), a frequent Spillane critic, said that the program is a "Band-Aid that doesn't even cover the wound."
Some educators involved with the project sympathize with his concern, but defend it as a good start.
"It barely scratches the surface," acknowledged Whitman Principal Eugene Jordan, "but if you sit back on your haunches and say it's too little, too late, you're not going to get anywhere. It's little. It's late. But it's needed."