We sat in on several classes and watched the teachers engage the kids with questions, facts and challenges. Each class seemed to be its own world — with the different learners and the teachers' different styles shaping the students' experience.
Here is a snapshot of two English classes, each challenging the students in a different way.
Ms. Hults' First Period General English Class
Elizabeth Hults exuded energy early in the morning, as she greeted each one of her students with an affectionate smile at the door. Hults, 29, of Forked River was wearing black and orange, the vivid Barnegat Bengal colors.
"I've been called very dynamic," she said. In the classroom, she had her students walk around and write ideas on posters she had pinned on the walls.
In breaks between activities, Hults played music. "To move the energy around," she said.
Hults teaches a group of kids of varying abilities — some exceptionally bright, some needing extra help, she said.
"It's an academically heterogeneous group of learners," Hults said. "Ity's culturally diverse. As far as their learning levels, they vary. There's a special ed population with several students here who have IEPs (Individualized Education Programs)."
Hults said she tries to keep her students engaged by choosing controversial through-provoking material that is related directly to their lives.
"My kids are very real," Hults said. "They're street smart. They have a knowledge beyond what an honors or an AP student would have. They have world knowledge. Some days I just want to take them home with me. They have tough home lives, some of them."
Hults said she sees her biggest challenge in reaching this group is "instilling intrinsic motivation" when at home some of these students face problems others only read about, such as a parent's suicide attempt or a family member passing away from overdosing on heroin.
"If you don't believe in you, I'll believe in you for you — it's so hard to do that sometimes," Hults said.
Just recently, Hults had started her class on a book "After" by Francine Prose, which Hults described as a post-Columbine, "almost post modernist kind of a novel" set at a fictional high school. The book portrays a school shooting and discusses what happens when the safety students take for granted every day is breached.
On the morning of our visit, Hults read an excerpt from the novel, then presented a documentary about the Columbine shooting, which she followed up with a discussion about safety, rules, bullying, violence and censorship.
"Literature is supposed to let us go within ourselves," she told the class.
"I enjoy this class," said Anthony Littell, 16. "She relates to students, she knows what she's talking about, and she is really nice."
Littell said he really liked going over Shakespeare and poetry in this class.
"It inspired me," he said.
As for the Columbine shooting documentary, Littell said it was "shocking."
"I think it's good that this happened in some ways, because now we're better prepared for something that could be much worse," he said.
"We always have fun here," said Keith Macavoy, 17.
"The class has its (good) moments," said Evan McDermott, 16. "The teacher is great. But for me, for the most part, the class is boring."
"She's good; she tries to wake us all up," said Alyssa Priestley, 17.
Priestley said she was impressed with that morning's lesson.
"It shows you what's out there," she said.
Ms. Beaudoin's Second Period Class
In another part of the building, the class started off with silence, as student copied their vocabulary words: apropos, arduous, bane, gauche, megalomania, strident, tenuous.
The students have learned 375 such words this year, according to the teacher Susan Beaudoin.
As the students were finishing up, the teacher engaged them in light conversation. The atmosphere in the classroom reminded this observer of a college seminar — or maybe an office — where the teacher and the students are colleagues, exchanging easy banter as they work cheerfully together on their daily routine.
"Last list for the school year — yay!" said Beaudoin, 28, of Beach Haven, then she spoke some more about last tests, deadlines, projects and assignments for the year.
"I will be assigning one more little goody that will be due on the 29th," she said. "If you're stressing out about the test, come talk to me after school."
After the vocabulary words were noted and all the deadlines discussed, Beaudoin went ahead with a book discussion of "Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley, a futuristic 1932 novel set in London.
"I like to teach novels that really relate to where our society is now and where it's going," Beaudoin said.
As the discussion progressed, students talked about experiencing different emotions, feeling insignificant, conflicting desires and clashes of points of view, young people being exposed to old age and other themes related to the novel.
The discussions are the best part of working with her group, Beaudoin said.
"My students are engaging, creative, smart and fun," she said. "We just really have great conversations."
As for the flip side of the coin, Beaudoin admitted there was a challenge to teaching a group of such bright children now getting ready to graduate.
"I teach seniors, and they're kind of on that cusp between now and college," she said. "They're almost adults, but they're not adults yet. I can expect a lot of them, and yet I still have to give them guidance."
"These [honors] classes are supposed to be difficult, but she makes it very easy," said Grant Bilker, 18, one of Beaudoin's students. "The workload never gets to a point where it becomes impossible."
In this class, Bilker said he has learned "how to analyze books comparatively from every perspective, beyond just your gut reaction," he said. "That's something that will prove useful in literature and in life."