South Side High School in Rockville Centre pushed inclusion a step further this school year, requiring all 11th-graders to take the toughest literature course offered -- no matter what their academic standing.
Principal Carol Burris said school officials want to elevate standards for everyone, so they're offering only one English class: International Baccalaureate Language and Literature, Higher Level.
"The best curriculum you have should be the curriculum for everyone," she said.
The idea for juniors' mandatory participation came after the district surveyed graduates to see how many had completed college in four years, Burris said. Responses in both 2004 and 2006 showed that taking the rigorous IB courses was key, particularly in the areas of English and math.
And it wasn't students' scores on IB subject assessments that mattered, the study found. What counted was their participation.
At the time Rockville Centre was querying its graduates, federal and state academic standards were rising. The district's previous practice of stratifying its curriculum by "tracking" students into varying levels would not help meet the new requirements and would keep struggling kids from the most challenging courses, Burris said.
Rockville Centre began offering the IB program in 1981, with the district selecting only about 20 students to participate. Thirty years later, 86 percent of roughly 270 graduates in South Side's Class of 2011 had completed at least one IB course and exam. Students can earn college credits in IB classes.
Used in 141 countriesIB, founded in 1968, is an international program meant to set the same high standards for students around the world. The program currently is in 3,302 schools in 141 countries, reaching nearly a million students.
Marcus Williams, 16, a junior at South Side, said the mix of students in the IB Language and Literature class is beneficial to all.
"The kids who struggle a little bit help you improve," said Williams, a straight-A student. "The mistakes they make help us learn."
Although some instructors had worried that struggling students wouldn't keep up and the course would lose its heft, IB English teacher Christine Brown said she hasn't had to lower her expectations.
"The objective is the same for every student in the room," she said.
The teacher said she differentiates instruction depending on students' needs, adding that the school offers extra help multiple times a week. Student performance has remained high, Burris said.
IB teacher Michael Musilli, 32, knelt down to eye level at the desks of a dozen students as he walked the room one afternoon last month, urging his class to dig deep into a particular female character in James Joyce's "Dubliners." Reading over the shoulder of one student, Musilli said he agreed with her answer, but that she needed more detail.
"What is her literary significance in the story?" Musilli asked.
Eric Gennari, 16, a junior at South Side, isn't shooting for an IB diploma, but said he's glad the IB class is the only English course the school offers. He wouldn't want to "take the easy way out" with a lower-level class, he said.
Brendan Alles, 16, a junior, said the class' slightly slower pace allows instructors to pore over material ever more closely, helping star students realize they don't know it all.
At least two other Long Island IB schools are eyeing Burris' move, with mixed feelings.
Anna Hunderfund, superintendent of the Locust Valley schools, said she has no plans to make any IB class mandatory because she worries that some courses might be too tough for some students.
Locust Valley has had the IB program for seven years; more than 70 percent of its juniors and seniors take at least one IB course.
"The question is what the children can handle at any one time," Hunderfund said. "I think it's better for the kids to enroll in and be exposed to the most rigorous curriculum as long as they can handle it. But it is an individual decision for the student and their families. Kids mature at different speeds and excel at different things. What may come easily to one child might not to another."
Hopes to follow leadLong Beach High School principal Gaurav Passi said he admires Burris' decision and hopes to do the same, though his school is several years away from that possibility.
The high school started offering the IB program in 2010 and currently has 60 students -- 20 seniors and 40 juniors -- shooting for an IB diploma. There are about 300 kids in the school's senior class; about 40 percent are taking one college-level course, either IB or Advanced Placement.
"I really like that model. But I think we have some work to do before we could ever do that," Passi said of the new requirement for juniors in Rockville Centre.