It's 7:45 a.m., and 35 sophomores are gathered in Caldwell High School's library for a class that is supposed to help them be better prepared for college and career.
You have to look hard to find a question with a simple right or wrong answer.
"What is your greatest cause of frustration, celebration? What is your greatest hope? What is your passion?" Bethany Skidmore, 14, says, reciting the list of questions that have come from her instructors. "A lot of questions I haven't really thought about before."
Skidmore and her classmates are enrolled in Caldwell High's Liberal Arts Academy, a daily one-hour class that instructors describe as boot camp for advanced-placement classes, where probing your own thoughts and defending your knowledge is as important as getting a right answer.
The Liberal Arts Academy draws a handful of top sophomores. The experiment began this year with a clear goal in mind: Boost the readiness of students taking AP classes and improve Caldwell High School students' college-readiness, as measured by the SAT or other college entrance exams.
AP tests and the SAT are measures of how prepared students are for life beyond high school.
READY FOR COLLEGE
Plenty of students enroll in Caldwell High's AP courses, but not many take the end-of-course exams that could earn them college credit. In AP English, for example, 60 kids took the class last year but just 33 took the AP test. "Probably because they don't feel ready," said Principal Anita Wilson.
Just 10 percent of Caldwell High's juniors were deemed ready for college, based on SAT results from earlier this year.
Under the state's rating system, Caldwell High School received three of five stars for the 2012-2013 school year, meaning the school must develop an improvement plan for certain parts of its program.
The elective on critical thinking which is not part of that improvement plan dovetails with the state's new Common Core standards, which ask students to question what they are learning and drill deeply into subjects.
The Liberal Arts Academy is a way to put time and resources into higher-performing students the way districts did with lower-performing students during the No Child Left Behind era, when the emphasis was on making sure all students got over a lower bar, said Stephen Hauge, one of the instructors.
Hauge and his co-instructor Bret Fowler don't have the whole academy class a bit of an experiment mapped out yet. But they know where they want to go. They want students, as Hauge describes it, "to build a mental habit of observation of detail, (inference) and questions that becomes a habit to them, regardless of the teacher."
If the class works right, it could lead to greater participation in more rigorous AP classes, said Hauge, who also teaches political science and economics. "I would be very distressed if that didn't occur."
Caldwell High's academy is in keeping with innovative programs the district has put in place in recent years. In 2010, the district began the Caldwell Freshman Academy, an alternative school aimed at keeping students from dropping out. In 2011, it started the P16 program, with funding help from the J. A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation's Go On initiative, to start preschool and after-school programs, and other efforts.
THINK AND RETHINK
In the first days of class in the academy, Skidmore has focused on her innermost thoughts and explaining her life through a family tree.
That will soon change. Fowler is considering asking students to thumb through several library books looking at opening lines such as "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ..." from Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" and then evaluate them.
From there, students will likely begin reading essays, probably by physicist Albert Einstein and French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, noted for his early 19th century assessment of the American character.
Throughout the course, students will be asked to write and rewrite. Think and rethink. Evaluate and re-evaluate, Hague said.
They will start a paper after reading their first essay, then revise as they gain new knowledge and insight, Hauge said. "At end of nine weeks they will publish ... a final copy," he said.
Emphasis on writing was a reason Rolondo Guillen enrolled in the class.
"I'm not much of a writer," he said. "I don't consider myself good at it. I thought I'd improve my skills."
Skidmore, who already takes several advanced-placement classes, signed up hoping it will knock her out of her comfort zone.
"I really like to learn and explore different things," she said.
Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts