Swiss honors program awards internationally-recognized diploma

Jennifer O'Sullivan of Wellesley, Mass., did not choose to attend a university abroad. But she could have, equipped as she was with an International Baccalaureate diploma upon graduation from high school.

Developed in Geneva two decades ago, the International Baccalaureate (IB) program offers an advanced, standardized secondary school curriculum. The program is given (usually as an honors curriculum) in over 103 schools in the United States and Canada. Through it, high school students may receive up to one full year of university credit.

''I feel that I got a great education because of the IB,'' said Paul Tsychas, a graduate of Westfield (Mass.) High School and now a sophomore at Harvard University. ''My first semester at Harvard was easier than some semesters at Westfield.''

Mack Davis, an assistant dean at Harvard, backs up Tsychas's enthusiasm. ''IB students at Harvard tend to be some of our very best students in the natural sciences,'' he said. ''They also tend to be in the top percentile in writing and communicating.''

The drive for quality education is a main impetus in offering the IB program, points out Gilbert Nicol, executive director of the New York-based International Baccalaureate of North America. He adds that another motive is a ''growing feeling of internationalism in the schools.''

The IB diploma, which is recognized around the globe, requires six rigorous one- or two-year courses, each ending with an exam prepared by the Geneva office. Each diploma candidate must take language, literature, social science, and a theory of knowledge course, which combines philosophy and critical thinking. Candidates must do a research project as well as engage in a creative or social service effort.

Last year 1,157 candidates worldwide met the requirements. Nearly 1,900 students earned credit for individual IB courses.

In contrast to the lower standards and low teacher morale in many US schools cited by the recent report of the National Committee for Excellence in Education , schools offering the IB degree report higher morale and raised academic consciousness. Henry Turner, IB program coordinator at Westfield High School, said that in the five years since the school adopted the IB program it has been transformed from ''a solid, average public school to a showcase school'' visited by others seeking to upgrade their own school systems.

Only four schools in the US, including the United Nations School in New York, offer the IB specifically for international student clientele. We should name the other three so that the Westfield and Wellesley programs can be oriented to it.

Lynne Moore, IB coordinator at Wellesley High School, reports increased enrollment since the school started offering the IB program. ''Foreign businessmen stationed in Boston will come to Wellesley so that their children can continue an education that will be recognized in their own country,'' she said.

The IB program involves a great deal of extra, often uncompensated work from the teachers and extra money from the school.

''There was a lot of resistance at first from the teachers,'' said Ms. Moore.

The major criticism, however, concerns elitism. Mr. Turner counters this charge, commenting that ''It's not just for a few kids. The honors courses we're teaching now are the same as the standard college prep courses of 20 years ago.'' The IB program, in his view, is simply ''good, strong academics.''

For further information: International Baccalaureate of North America, 200 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10016.

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