One student is reading Dante's "Inferno" - for pleasure. Others are planning internships for next summer at law firms and hospitals. Everyone carries a college ID.
Welcome to the freshman year of high school.
Here at a specialized new high school on the west side of Houston, students can take courses at an adjoining junior college as early as their sophomore year. It's one more example of the "dual-enrollment" programs that are popping up at high schools across the nation.
And for many students, the motivation for starting calculus and Cicero so early is economic: Colleges are expensive, and getting more so. Completing as much as two years of college credits before high school is even over can cut down drastically on the bills.
"Eighty percent of the parents I've spoken to light up when I talk about two years of free education," says Justin Fuentes, dean of students here at the Challenge Early College High School.
But while some herald accelerated college as a creative solution to skyrocketing tuition, other educators are concerned by what it might mean to the college experience. They worry that the days of taking classes as impractical as Swedish literature or glass blowing could be dwindling. And that one consequence might be a narrowing of the American mind.
"It's vital in a democracy that people have the time to be educated with a sense of the broader connections among fields outside their own profession," says James Engell, a literature professor at Harvard University.
For students like Richard Araiza, however, such concerns seen abstract compared with the crushing reality of tuition bills. The Challenge High School freshman first realized he needed to think creatively about his education after talking with his sister's boyfriend, a student at the University of Houston.
"He told me how much his books cost and how much his tuition was, and I knew I couldn't afford that," says Richard, whose spiked black hair and all-black wardrobe belie a quiet and cheerful demeanor.
So his sisters surprised him by arranging an interview for Challenge. While half of the school's 150 students have enrolled to take advantage of the Challenge's small class sizes and strenuous curriculum, according to Principal Ann McClellan, Richard is among the other half who are clearly here for financial reasons.
It's not the school's aesthetics that entice them. Challenge High School is only two large warehouses partitioned into classrooms, with a broad deck holding green lunch tables in between. But the school's curriculum allows students to take junior- college courses beginning with the second semester of their sophomore year.
It's a structure politicians and policymakers across the country are promoting. This summer, Virginia Gov. Mark Warner announced a plan to expand college curriculum into the state's high schools. Bill Gates's charitable foundation is funding the creation of 100 "early college high schools," 23 of which will be up and running by the end of this year.
California, Georgia, and New York all have scores of dual- enrollment schools, and Utah now offers to pay 75 percent of the final two years of college for anyone who earns two years of credit during high school.
"Getting students through the pipeline quickly with a degree is getting to be very important to the universities," says Terese Rainwater, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit research group.
One incentive for colleges: The largest graduate class ever will finish high school in 2007, and many states, like California, have only about half as many seats in their universities as they'd need for all the students they've pledged to accommodate.
At the same time, budget cuts have forced many public universities to raise tuition. Nationwide, undergraduate tuition is rising at twice the rate of inflation. North Carolina recently raised tuition 5 percent at all of its public universities, and Massachusetts instituted a 28 percent hike. Here in Texas, tuition at the University of Houston and Texas A&M University will rise this January 21 and 10 percent, respectively.
"Tuitions are going to continue to rise over the next few years, which will only continue to drive interest in dual-enrollment," says Katherine Boswell, an education policy consultant in Salt Lake City.
At Challenge High School, the promise of enormous savings is attracting students who clearly expect their education to vault them as quickly as possible into the workforce.
"In our admissions meetings, half the students already knew what they wanted to be," says Principal McClellan. "They are a pretty serious bunch."
Such focus and ambition may be laudable, but many educators believe a turn toward academic expediency could threaten one of the nation's chief institutional assets: its four-year colleges.
In terms of test scores, students in the US historically catch up to Asians and Europeans only during college, primarily because of America's excellent higher-education system.
"If we reduce the experience, we will be giving our students less time to blossom and develop, which is a strength of our country," says Professor Engell.
Others say students learn more effectively as they mature emotionally - a process that can't be accelerated.
"Phases of life and the experience of education are arranged in ways that shouldn't be gotten out of whack," says Alvin Kernan, a retired literature professor at Yale University.
Even upperclassmen, Professor Kernan notes, often have barely enough life experience to understand why Prince Hamlet was so frazzled.
But that's not an issue that worries too many students at Challenge High School, where even those here mostly to save money are eager to jump into complex classics.
After the "Inferno," sophomore Roger Cruz plans to pick up Homer's "Iliad."
"I'm into old-time literature," says Roger. "And history is a phat class."