An elite curriculum meets an amalgam of students

Is the rigorous International Baccalaureate program for everyone? A N.Y.C. public school aims to find out.

When she first enrolled at the Baccalaureate School for Global Education, Courtney Johnson mistook the word baccalaureate for bachelorette. She thought she was signing up for an all-girls school. Turns out, she wasn't the only one unsure about what she was getting into.

At this school on a sun- dappled boulevard in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, Courtney and a handful of 10th-grade classmates confess to having found their way here more by happenstance than through careful deliberation. It's an unlikely path to a public school whose mission is to offer the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum to each of its students.

IB, founded in 1968 to provide educational continuity to the roving children of European diplomats, arrived in American public schools in 1977. Often it's compared to the better-known Advanced Placement program. As with AP, students can take just one or two college-level IB classes.But many opt to pursue the challenging IB diploma, which can count for a semester or more of college credit.

Built-in expectations

The students here tend not to harbor the same grand ambitions one might find at a place like the United Nations International School, just a subway ride away (UNIS, as it's called, is a private school and the first IB participant in the US). Their parents aren't the hovering, hard-driving types who vie to get their kids into the elite college preparatory schools spread throughout the city. In fact, many students here say their parents knew as little about IB as they did when they registered.

And this is all exactly as Principal Bill Stroud intended it. In 2002, when he set out to open a new school, he envisioned a place that would draw a mix of kids from the neighborhood, not least of all the average and below- average students. At his school, the expectations would be the same for everyone - extremely high.

"When you're applying, they don't look at how good your grades are," says Tiffany Johnson, one of the 10th-graders. "They look at how you are as a person." Grades actually are considered, but a student's commitment, gauged during an interview, is as important. The school also takes into account diagnostic reading and math tests.

A primary consideration here is diversity - cultural and academic. The students reflect their neighborhood: They are an even mix of black, Latino, Asian, and white; one-third qualify for free lunches, one-third for reduced-price lunches; between 10 and 25 percent enter below their grade level.

Mr. Stroud's school is an experiment of sorts. At root, he's trying to answer one question: Can IB work for all students?

Today, 474 schools in the US offer IB. At a time when the American high school has been deemed "inadequate," "broken," and "obsolete" by any number of critics, IB is one piece in a broader effortto reform the institution.

For schools trying to offer the curriculum to a wider range of students, the hope is that even those who don't excel will benefit from exposure to college-level work. In turn, that may improve college graduation rates. (Fewer than half of students who enter college earn degrees.)

Only two of the schools offering IB courses are public schools committed to preparing all students for the IB diploma. Besides the Baccalaureate School there is only the International Academy in the affluent Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, which admits students from 12 area districts. At that school, opened in 1996, 93.5 percent of students earned the IB diploma this year.

There are some other urban schools trying to make IB more inclusive. Participation in IB by minority and low-income students at Mount Vernon High School in Fairfax County, Va., for instance, has swelled in recent years.

How to measure success

The Baccalaureate School has 410 students enrolled in grades 7 through 12 for the fall. It will graduate its first class next year, but the class of 2007 will be the first eligible to earn the full IB diploma.

This year, 100 percent of the students passed their Regents Exams, New York State's high school assessment. But Stroud says the real measure of success is student engagement.

On this Thursday, two African guests visit a ninth-grade Global Studies class to discuss genocide in Rwanda and Darfur. The students come away with their perceptions of Africa changed.

In the hall, a student stops Stroud to talk about his progress in "Einstein's Dreams," a book by an MIT physics and writing professor, which Stroud teaches in his Theories of Knowledge class. Meant to help students learn to think, it's a course required for the diploma, along with passing exams in math, English, social science, science, foreign language, and art; a 4,000-word research essay; and 150 hours of community service.

The mark of IB, say those familiar with the program, is its emphasis on depth of knowledge over breadth. With students able to choose from an assortment of essay questions on their exams, teachers are freed up to spend more time on any one topic - focusing on the role of women in the Civil War, for example, rather than feeling crunched to cover every detail of the conflict.

Four hours of sleep will do

At lunchtime, the assistant principal regularly lets a group of 10th-graders overtake her office. Today they grumble and grouse about next year, when they'll return as juniors to a full IB courseload. They share IB horror stories: Anu Bakare says she knows she'll get only four hours of sleep a night. To get her IB psychology work done, she says, a friend at UNIS sleeps in 15-minute intervals. The group nods, resigned to this fate.

At any of the nearby public high schools, Courtney says, "we'd be in AP getting everything done - it would be a lot easier." All say that at some point they considered leaving.

Principal Stroud already suspects that the answer to the question, "Is IB is for everyone?" may be "No."

From other IB educators and concerned parents he has heard the refrain: "You can't slow down instruction to wait for the kid who doesn't get it." He heard echoes of it again earlier this month when he spoke about making IB accessible at the annual International Baccalaureate North America (IBNA) conference in Montreal.

Parents and educators worry the curriculum may require too much sacrifice. Six hours of homework a night leaves little room to practice tennis or piano, let alone look after siblings or hold down an after-school job. Teachers worry about self-esteem. How will a student feel if IB proves to be too demanding?

But Stroud's talk was well received, with other school heads asking to visit and start up a correspondence.

The IBNA organization is also exploring questions of access. "We're trying to convince folks that well more than a small slice of the student population can participate in IB programs successfully," says Bradley Richardson, the North America regional director in New York. "Consider that around the world, students who are not all advantaged are doing this and doing well."

The key, Stroud says, is to find the right balance - the range of achievement levels that can be incorporated into a classroom before the curriculum must be distilled too much - and to offer tutoring and extra classes for students who start off behind.

From reluctance to devotion

For Stroud and his students, the first real test will come in 2007. By then the 10th-graders will be seniors, sitting for six long exams over two days in the hope of earning the IB diploma.

Jamaal Brown, one of those 10th-graders, tinkers on a laptop between bites of lunch, preparing for a presentation. He says his parents pushed him toward the Baccalaureate School after stumbling across it in a booklet put out by the city. He wanted to go to Cardozo, an overcrowded high school nearby.

But "[now] that I've realized what the school has to offer," he says, "I can't give it up to go to a regular high school."

Hefty exam questions

For their International Baccalaureate exam in Higher Level History of the Americas, students in 2002 could choose two essay questions from six different topics. They had 90 minutes to write both essays. Here's one example of their choices:

Topic 1: Causes, practices and effects of war

1. Compare and contrast the causes of the First and Second World Wars.

2. Analyse the changes in the nature of warfare during the twentieth century.

3. Why were there so many civil wars in the twentieth century?

4. Examine the effects of war and the fear of war on the civilian population of two countries, each chosen from a different region.

5. "The Korean War was a limited war, a civil war, and an episode in the Cold War." To what extent do you agree with each part of this assertion?

Source: "Supertest: How the International Baccalaureate Can Strengthen Our Schools," by Jay Mathews and Ian Hill (reprinted with permission from Open Court).

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