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Luke, 17, going on 23, greets me confidently as I enter the admin block at Rutherford College. He guides me through the school maze, making effortless small talk - about the traffic, being at school on a sunny day, the younger students we pass whom he mentors.

Up a flight of stairs and we're in a classroom few pupils enter - it's reserved for an elite group of year 11, 12 and 13 students.

Elitism. It's anathema to the egalitarian culture which state schools (and teachers) have traditionally fostered. It's also at odds with the herd mentality of most teenagers. But here at Rutherford, this hand-picked group of students is being encouraged to become tall poppies - and they're not the least bit reluctant.

The school's Talent Development Initiative looms as an answer to the quandary of getting students not just to pass exams but to fully realise their potential and become well-rounded young adults. The combined form class includes not just the best and brightest in their subjects but those with particular strengths and weaknesses, and kids who may have been under-achieving.

The TDI, as everyone calls it, is a three-year pilot funded by the Ministry of Education which in 2005 directed all schools to cater for gifted and talented children.

Tucked beside the northwestern motorway at Te Atatu, Rutherford is a decile 5 school, reflecting its melting pot, mixed income, community. Barely half the roll is European, 20 per cent are Maori, with the rest Samoans, Tongans, Indians, Chinese and "other Asian." Like schools throughout Auckland's diverse communities, it has its share of troubled kids - and kids who are plain trouble. But what Rutherford is attempting with its gifted students goes well beyond what most public and private schools in more affluent areas are doing.

The current intake ranges from maths and science whizzes to budding sports stars, poets and musicians. These are not the offspring of doctors, lawyers, dentists and engineers - but some are heading down such paths. Others excel in rugby, netball, carving or graphics.

Some are good at everything they try; others have particular strengths but are broadening their skill base - helped and encouraged by their TDI "family".

"We do a lot of celebrating," says teacher Viv Russell, who heads the programme. "It's not a natural part of our culture but these kids experience [success] everyday."

To meet them is to be won over not by their intelligence or skills but by their groundedness and sense of purpose - not that they are bigheads.

"I used to get annoyed because I'm good at everything," Craig Robertson says matter-of-factly.

"Now I can do all the subjects I want and then do more because I just love having knowledge."

Like many, he's tackling NCEA levels a year ahead of schedule and achieving excellence. "With the TDI you can pick and choose the subjects. The personalised approach really works for me." He's a gifted poet who plans to study law. But the TDI has pushed him more towards sports and the performing arts.

Under-achieving school leavers emerged in the 1990s as a threat to our international competitiveness and concern heightened in the early days of NCEA, when it lacked incentives for excellence. For parents with means, the response has always been to go private and that's accelerating with the emergence of newcomers such as Academic Colleges Group, which promise extension programmes for high achievers, longer lessons and "quality teaching".

For educationists, the bigger concern is that secondary education has a one size fits all, curriculum-focused approach which doesn't cater for kids who are "different". And unmotivated pupils can be disruptive ones. Others slip below the radar and may never fulfil their potential.

The Government response was to add "gifted and talented children" to the national administration guidelines and make $9 million available over three years for advisory support and talent development initiatives.

Mary Chamberlain, Ministry of Education group manager of curriculum teaching and learning design, says schools around the country have responded in various ways to the 2005 edict. She cites primary school music students going to high school classes; secondary students attending university lectures, and rural schools bringing pupils together for specific projects.

But for most schools - saddled with ever-increasing demands and resourcing issues - addressing the needs of gifted under-performers is just another priority. What distinguishes Rutherford, say academics, is its comprehensive, holistic approach.

About 30 students are in the TDI, selected after a series of interviews involving parents, staff and students. The identification process acknowledges that talented students are not necessarily top of the class and that different cultures have different concepts of giftedness - Maori and Asian students, for instance, are assessed for their ability to think creatively or laterally.

The students have a big say in drawing up their personalised learning programmes. If a student wants to do something the school can't provide, Russell looks to outside agencies for help.

"They definitely feel more in control of their own learning - they're a lot more empowered.

"They're able to do things they would never have thought possible."

Students attend the same subject classes as other students but may be given more challenging work and have a free period to pursue their particular area of interest. They help each other with after-school tuition. There's emphasis on activities beyond the classroom and on broadening social, sporting and cultural skills.

"We're trying to be far more flexible in providing learning opportunities to match the students' passions and strengths," says Russell.

There's regular evaluation and feedback between teachers, students and parents.

Russell was the school's head of learning support, working mainly with special needs children. Then, while taking a top class through the grades, "I realised they had special needs too."

Results are already tangible in terms of improved grades and scholarships and the unheralded school's successes in last year's interschool debating championships (winning the senior section and coming second in the advanced league). Then there's the personal development into well-rounded young adults, aiming high but with feet on the ground.

"There's a like-minded focus," says Year 12 student Chelsea Robinson. "There's no tall poppy syndrome here because we all want to succeed."

The students' achievements are as wide-ranging as their talents. Last year, head boy and school dux Chen Liu did stage one university maths and passed NCEA with excellence while tutoring students after school.

Year 12 student John Kingi produced a proposal for addressing Maori under-achievement at Rutherford in consultation with parents. He was a Youth Parliamentarian and has a weekly slot on community radio focusing on youth issues.

Kawana Waititi, bent on following his uncle into a career as a carver, last year came third in the Auckland regional Manu Korero speech competition.

Carey Sizer has his own web design business and hopes to gain enough NCEA level 3 credits in the first half of this year to take up a scholarship in Japan.

For Aonghas Anderson, the TDI has allowed him to develop his filmmaking and video editing skills while doing advanced calculus, statistics and physics. This year, along with Rose He, he's taking a university paper after school.

Allie Le Lievre, an Auckland age group netball rep, has developed leadership and public speaking skills and become deputy head girl. A year behind her, Te Kura Ngata Aerengamate, a promising rugby player, says the TDI has helped her focus on academic subjects and improve her grades.

The students feel privileged to be part of an elite in a public school environment. They are conscious that other students envy them but have come to terms with being different. It comes with the confidence in knowing who they are, says Russell. "We don't get kids who we think are ideal who say no. We have had some upset students who desperately want to be on the programme."

The students also give a lot back and Russell believes lessons from the TDI will percolate through the school. As Le Lievre says: "We are guinea pigs - but we're hoping to set it up so everyone else can benefit."

Russell says the key is having a dedicated teacher with the time to organise opportunities for the students and liaise with parents. "A lot of schools will maybe do just one thing such as mentoring, or withdrawal one day a week."

Whether other state schools follow Rutherford's lead could hinge on the trial's evaluation by researchers headed by Dr Roger Moltzen of Waikato University. Evaluator Tracy Riley, of Massey University, was "blown away" when she met the students. "What struck me was the personalisation of their learning and the role of the dedicated teacher. It's not just about academic achievement, it's about pastoral care as well.

"The kids were quite articulate about what their gifts and talents were. They were a very cohesive and supportive group although their programmes were quite individualised. It's moving away from one size fits all education."

Further endorsement is likely from a forthcoming Education Review Office national report on schools' response to the 2005 requirement to cater for talented and gifted students.

For Rutherford, the more pressing question is what to do when the Ministry funding runs out - how to make a dedicated TDI position sustainable within a constrained school budget. Russell says there are creative ways to do so.

"These kids have a right to have their needs met - underachievers are at-risk children too."

And as Luke Sizer points out: "A lot of the things we do, you don't need a whole lot of money for."

Which will be music to the ministry's ears.

Says Chamberlain: "Our policy isn't to put an extra teacher in every school to support gifted and talented children. The policy is to enable every teacher to support gifted and talented kids in their classroom.

"It's about supporting the development of innovative approaches to gifted children's education and sharing the knowledge of models of effective practice."

Carey Sizer, Year 13
"It's the holistic approach that sets it apart. We're encouraged to take part in areas we're not participating in, such as sport or music - it makes us a lot more rounded. I've got my own web design business outside school - the TDI has really helped set me up with people. "I took level 3 art and design last year and this year am going to Japan on a six-month scholarship so I'm just doing four subjects. I should be able to gain enough internal credits to pass before I go - that's the flexibility of NCEA."

Chelsea Robinson, Year 12
"I'm doing level 3 chemistry one year early which will lighten the load next year so I can do other sciences. We are forced into all sorts here. The subjects aren't easy but with our vertical form system it's students helping students."

Allie Le Lievre, Year 13
"Everyone is really passionate about education and achieving well. I really feed off that. Because we have multi-year levels there's a lot of support within the TDI - a lot of mentoring. We're more friends and family than classmates. We just learn so much off each other."

Alex Strange, Year 12
"In primary and intermediate, if they try to do acceleration most of it's just extra work - you have to choose between struggling with people you don't know or being with friends. The really good thing about the TDI is they say 'what do you want to do and how can we help you do it?' It's a more comfortable environment where everyone's your friend and you don't get singled out for being different."

Gannin Bell, Year 12
"Before, I would not hang out with many people out of my school group. Now, with so many different people - how can you not like random people? It helps in all areas. It has taught me a lot of stuff like time management and motivation - and enthusiasm is contagious. I find the higher class of knowledge, the more you want to achieve. In ordinary classes the teacher spends 10 minutes of the lesson telling everyone off."

Rose He, Year 13
"The highlight last year was probably debating for the senior debating team which won our grade in the interschool competition. We thrashed St Kents. My major achievement personally was [becoming] head girl. I don't think I would have been motivated to apply if it wasn't for the TDI. Our subject teachers are aware we want to be stretched and they're always willing to help."

John Kim, Year 13
"I plan to go into medicine or health research and before the TDI I was hardworking but not a top student. The TDI taught me skills in studying and made heaps of difference to my marks - I've learned that hard work is not everything. I didn't have any leadership roles but once I got involved in the TDI I became a prefect and developed leadership roles in my church."

Aonghas Anderson, Year 13
"I'm interested in maths and sciences so [along with Rose He] I go to university three times a week after school for lectures and labs. The TDI also allows me to pursue interests in filmmaking and video editing. I started filming events at school and putting them on YouTube. The official Rutherford College page has 130 videos on it. I'm not sure what I'll specialise in but film definitely looks appealing."