CONYERS, Ga. -- Some students started classes Thursday at a new high school in Rockdale County, a bedroom county near Atlanta, unaware they'd been drafted into a bold experiment.
Even the unsuspecting, however, quickly got the hint:
* "The only thing you need for my class is an open mind," civics teacher Arthur O'Neill told his students. "If you'd like to bring paper and pencil, that's fine. If not, that's fine, too."
* Science teacher Debra Russell announced she'll pass out a list of 36 objectives the state says she must cover -- and students will decide which ones they want to learn first. The class will be heavy on experiments -- and if students catch Ms. Russell pushing them to memorize science formulas and answer end-of-chapter questions, they're to pelt her with paper wads and put an end to that, she told them.
* Instruction isn't confined to 55-minute classes. Instead, science, social studies, English and math teachers confer on how they'll divide a 4 1/2 -hour block each day. Accordingly, there are no bells at Salem High School -- just gentle chimes to mark lunch periods and other fixed events.
"This is definitely not the typical first day of school," observed ninth-grader Travis Smith. He and his classmates said they are willing guinea pigs in an experiment at "school restructuring" in Georgia.
After a full first day of classes, the high schoolers still had not been issued a single textbook -- or even been asked to look at one. Instead, they'd learned in more compelling ways -- working their way through a new computer program, discussing the nature of rap music and the English language, and watching their teacher portray a sloppy scientist breaking every safety rule in the lab.
Said ninth-grader Matt Medley: I've been waiting for something like this."
With the blessings of the state Department of Education, Salem is the first Georgia school to join the national Coalition of Essential Schools, a network of more than 200 schools in 20 states that have embraced a common set of reform principles. Teachers and students are given great say in operating their school and classrooms, and the emphasis is on mastering important material in depth, not covering the whole textbook.
At Salem, there is no tracking -- a big change from the typical Georgia high school. All ninth- and 10th-graders will take the same core academic courses, rather than being tracked into "advanced" versus "basic" English, Algebra I versus general math, and the like.
Gifted students, mildly handicapped special education students and those for whom English is a second language don't get pulled out of regular classes to work with specialists. Instead, the specialists come into the regular class -- to work with any student who needs help, not just their particular charges.
Even the teachers who are supposed to pull it off aren't quite sure how it will work.
Every member of the school's faculty asked to work at Salem, and all have gone through six days of training by Coalition of Essential Schools experts. But the details of how Salem will operate are still evolving -- and probably will for years, says the school's principal, Bob Cresswell.
Textbooks will be a sidelight, not a mainstay. Computers will be used in every subject. Interdisciplinary lessons will abound. Even science and math tests will feature essay questions.
"This is going to take a great deal of experimentation and a great deal of work, but the possibilities are incredible," said English teacher Jerry Smith.
Like any radical change, the experiment is not without skeptics.
"I hope we don't rush into experimentation under the name of restructuring," said a state school board member, Larry Foster of Jonesboro. "Teachers in this state are doing a pretty good job. I don't want to start messing with education. . . . It might not work."
Although Rockdale County's test scores are typically among the highest in the state and its schools earned three National Schools of Excellence awards in as many years, district officials said they believed the Salem curriculum would bring about even higher attendance, lower dropout rates, fewer discipline problems and increased student achievement.