BILL GALLAGHER'S students had just devised a plan for how America could have avoided its Civil War.

So, in their spare time, they decided to solve the crisis in Iraq.

That was last fall at Girard College High School where Gallagher was teaching five social-studies classes. What started out as an exercise in relating history to current events evolved into an eight-point exit strategy so sophisticated that you'd wonder why you're not reading it in your favorite newspaper.

U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., got a copy of the plan and fired back a letter commending the students' work.

"I will certainly consider them as Congress continues to debate U.S. policy in Iraq," she wrote.

That may have just been something nice to say. But their strategy is worthy of consideration.

They didn't get sidetracked on a debate about how we got there. Their focus was where to go from here. The United States "never intended to be an occupying force in Iraq," they point out. But we have to "attempt to provide a stable environment . . . before we leave."

Seven well-thought-out points about how to create that stable environment follow, including how to build a coalition of allies, how to open diplomatic channels in Syria and Iran and how to rewrite the Iraqi constitution to ensure Sunni representation in the Iraqi government.

But, as well-conceived as the Girard students' plan is, it was little more than a starting point for students from six area high schools who dismantled and reconfigured it in a day of heavy noodling yesterday.

The students came from Bodine High School for International Affairs, Girls High, Central, St. Joseph's Prep and the Philadelphia Mennonite High School.

For openers, they hacked a year out of the original timetable. They called instead for U.S. withdrawal by Dec. 31, 2008. Then they really got down to business.

What struck me was the depth of thought and the level of sophistication reflected in their strategy.

For four years we've been embroiled in a war by an administration that depends on our lack of knowledge to keep us from challenging its policies, as if raising questions is unpatriotic. We're mired in a conflict that most of us don't understand enough about to question.

These kids valued democracy as much as any of us but understood that it's not something "you can just force on other countries," as one pointed out.

They understood the sometimes subtle distinction between democracy and self-determination and the fact that, if the average Iraqi has his way, he may make choices we don't like but may be bound to respect.

"There's a culture that goes with democracy," said Julian Stepehens, of Girard College High School. You can't just create that culture.

"Giving them self-determination may involve violent conflict," warned Eitan Mosenkis of Central High. "But we can't just take away their self-determination."

One of the most passionate exchanges involved students who differed on how active a role the U.S. ought to take in negotiations with neighboring Muslim nations aimed at forming a supportive coalition for the emerging Iraq.

"America holds itself out as being very tolerant," said Borana Hajdinaj, a Muslim student from Central.

"We're not as understanding as we think. We have to see things through their eyes."

Nichole Holms, of Philadelphia Mennonite High School, argued that Iraq may benefit from more input from neighboring countries with similar cultures.

"America needs to sit in the bleachers for awhile and see what these other countries think," she said.

But Sydney Epps, of Central, noted the potential danger to American security of convening the Arab League to decide Iraq's future.

"It seems the only common interest they do have," she said, "is that they hate us."

The students' willingness to wrestle with this foreign-policy

conundrum contrasts with the way most of us approach it. We're mostly at one of two extremes: get out now or stay until we win.

I don't even know what a win is or how a hasty exit would affect our long-term security. I fear it will be a question for the next generation. It's good to know they're thinking about it. *