In her early years as a middle school English teacher, Maureen McLaughlin learned a lesson.

Tracking students based on ability level is no recipe for success, said New Milford's assistant superintendent of schools.

She recalled a lower-level class in which there were no academic standouts or peer models, no one the students wanted to emulate.

"They felt defeated before they even started,'' Ms. McLaughlin recalled.

Now she embraces pushing students toward more rigorous classes. She said she knows it motivates them to "try harder.''

This fall the theory will be tested at New Milford High School.

The high school will drop seven of its general level courses: United States history, English III, plant science, fall and spring ecology, vocational math and conversational Spanish.

In those subject areas -- most for upperclassmen -- students will be able to choose between academic, honors and advanced placement courses.

Eventually the high school will offer only three levels in all four grades. Special education instruction will still be offered to certain students, most within the regular classroom setting.

At the same time, elementary and intermediate school math program is to be revamped so third graders learn a mix of the district's two current math programs -- Saxon and Everyday Math.

Fourth grade will then no longer be divided based on one or the other. Everyday Math has been considered the more advanced program.

In Danbury, the high school this coming year will revamp its currriculum so there would be no lower-level classes.

This approach, prescribed by state and national educational authorities, is not without its critics.

In general level courses, recently retired New Milford High math department chairman David Shaffer said, students can learn at a slower pace. They then can move up to a more rigorous course, he said.

Without such a foundation, they will rapidly flounder, he said.

"I think it's a noble goal to raise the bar," Mr. Shaffer said, "but I think if we raise the bar so high that some kids don't get there, then what have we accomplished?''

New Milford Board of Education member David Lawson has similar reservations.

"One size does not fit all,'' said Lawson, a high school history teacher in Dover Plains, N.Y. "These changes are a noble endeavor, but without the proper resources, we cannot expect them to succeed.''

The school district this year is losing more than 15 teaching positions, six of them at the high school.

Ms. McLaughlin said this new effort will require teachers to be creative and open-minded with their lesson planning.

"If you teach the same way you've always taught, with a variety of abilities in the classroom, then you are going to have some failures, and you're going to be frustrated,'' she admitted.

Part of her job will be to ensure teachers get the professional development they need to make the new system work.

Ms. McLaughlin is confident teachers who change their approach to make lessons accessible -- with small groups and even one-on-one instruction -- will see students respond.

Board of Education chairman Wendy Faulenbach praised the initiative.

"We, as a system, want to give our students more of an opportunity to stay in the game,'' she said.