A neighbor told me she had requested that her daughter be placed in honors English in sixth grade. But when she called the school the other day, the school counselor said that the daughter's fifth-grade teacher had not recommended her and that all placements were made according to teacher recommendations.

My neighbor is, needless to say, not happy, and is wondering what the school system's policy is. I suspect there are many other parents in this position.

The policy is that parents can overrule teacher recommendations. In fact, at the end of June then-Associate Superintendent (newly promoted to the position of Deputy Superintendent) Steven Seleznow sent an e-mail to middle school principals saying that schools can only "recommend" placements for students. He told principals that "parents may accept the recommendation or may ask to discuss it with you," and he said that principals should be accessible to such requests.

Parents of middle and high school students should focus on this issue right this minute. If I were the kind of person who wrote in capital letters, I would write "do not delay" in capital letters, and I might even use an exclamation point. Make sure your child is scheduled to be in the classes you want your child to be in. It is easier to fix a scheduling problem now than in September. If you haven't received a letter with your child's schedule, call the school now and speak with your child's counselor.

I think as a general rule that children should take the most rigorous curriculum offered by the school. And no parent should accept as an excuse that honors, or gifted-and-talented, classes are full. If one class is full, then another should be opened and more students recruited to be in it. If your child is being kept out, there are sure to be others who are as well.

One argument schools often use to discourage parents from seeking rigorous classes is to say, "We just want your child to be successful." Many teachers, counselors and principals--and parents, too--have the opinion that it is better for students to get A's in less rigorous classes than B's or C's in rigorous classes.

But a new report from the U.S. Department of Education says that the students who were ultimately successful educationally--that is, those students who completed their baccalaureate degrees--were, for the most part, those who took the most rigorous curriculum they could. The study found that grades did not predict success, nor did class standing or SAT scores.

What did matter, the study found, was "the intensity and quality of secondary school curriculum." For those who want to know more the report can be found at www.ed.gov/pubs /Toolbox/toolbox.html.

This issue of curriculum is important for all parents to pay attention to, but it is of particular urgency for the parents of African American and Latino children, who often are excluded from honors and gifted-and-talented classes--even when they have the same grades and academic performance as white and Asian students. In fact, a committee appointed by the school board just reported that racial disparities in which students teachers recommend for such classes constitutes a "crisis" in the county. That is a major reason the school board has said that any student who wants access to a gifted-and-talented or honors curriculum has the right to ask for it.

Some teachers will argue that allowing more students into the gifted-and-talented and honors classes will lead to a "watering down" of the curriculum. But if there are clear standards, clear pathways to meet those standards, rigorous assessments and no grading on a curve, that shouldn't happen.

Parents who think their child should be in a more rigorous class than is now scheduled should immediately write to their principal asking that he or she review the placement decision. Parents may want to request a meeting and try to resolve the issue that way. If the principal sticks to the original placement, parents can file a formal appeal by writing a letter to Seleznow at 850 Hungerford Dr., Rockville, Md. 20850.

Mandatory Activities?

Dear Homeroom:

In school we had a large discussion sprouting from the Littleton school shooting, and one topic that came up was participation in extracurricular activities. The idea was to make participating in at least one such activity mandatory. I feel that this would be a very good idea, as it would help students to feel more connected to their school, make and keep more friends, and overall benefit the school environment.

Of course, there are many people against mandatory participation. Some students don't want to be forced into anything; others who are in an activity don't like the idea of uninterested students joining just because they have to. And obviously, it wouldn't make sense to make someone who hates sports play on the basketball team, or to make someone who hates speaking in public to be in a play. But everybody has something that they like or, if not, they need to find it.

I have heard that the average teen spends 3 1/2 hours at home, alone, every day. That means a total of 24 hours alone a week. There's nothing wrong with having some time to yourself, but I think that at least having one hour of some activity or club after school in a week would be appropriate.

In a school with schedules that change in mid-year, this would definitely keep students from getting alienated from their school and friends.

Jeremy Hoffman, eighth grade

Bethesda

This is an interesting discussion to have. I'd like to hear from other students and teachers on this. In the meantime, the following letter raises another issue around extracurricular activities.

Fighting Activity Fees

Dear Homeroom:

For the past three years, I have had a huge problem with the extracurricular activity fee. We haven't been able or willing to pay it, and as a result, our children feel like second-class citizens of their schools, excluded from participation in plays, sports and, in the case of the Key Club, charitable activities.

Three years ago, we had three children in Montgomery County secondary schools, one in college and one in elementary school. Additionally, my elderly mother was living with us, so we were supporting eight people on roughly $55,000 to $60,000 per year. It should have been sufficient, but it was barely so for living in Montgomery County.

The imposition of these additional fees was a financial burden I felt we couldn't afford. And if our family, which I consider middle income, had trouble, how much more difficult for low-income families must the fee be?

The extracurricular activity fee was enacted despite widespread opposition from parents. But lately I sense just a passive hostility to this tax on public school families. What can we do to get rid of this charge and allow all children to take part in after-school activities regardless of finances?

Diana Onesky

Burtonsville

Your letter is timely because parents of middle and high school students just received bills for next year's student activity fee, without which their children cannot participate in after-school activities. The fee is $40 for families earning $29,000 a year or more; $18 for families earning between $20,000 and $29,000; and $10 for those earning $20,000 or less.

The activity fee was instituted in 1996 to finance the return of middle school sports. Years before that the County Council had refused to pay for middle schools to have interscholastic sports teams, and a strong contingent of parents in the county wanted them back. The fee brings in more than $900,000 every year, of which about $700,000 goes to finance one sport each season for boys and girls at each of the middle schools.

The rest of the money gets distributed to high schools and middle schools to supplement the amount they get for other after-school activities such as drama clubs.

When the fee was first instituted, opposition was widespread. Hundreds of calls flooded the county offices. But, school officials say, vocal opposition has died down completely.

If you really want to get rid of the fee, you will need to mount an effective political campaign--petitions, phone calls, protests and lobbying the school board and the County Council--to make your case that the fee is an unfair burden.

You should know that there are some in the county who believe that the fee is appropriate because extracurricular activities are beyond the obligation of the taxpayer to support. Of course, if we did what Jeremy Hoffman suggests above and made them mandatory, that would certainly raise a serious equity issue.

I welcome readers' views on this.

Homeroom is a forum for you. Send questions, opinions and issues you would like to see discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, 51 Monroe St., Suite 500, Rockville, Md. 20850. The fax number is 301-279-5665. Or you can e-mail homeroom@washpost.com.