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IB students tread a different path

International Baccalaureate program participants spend their school days in classes, lunch periods and social groups outside the traditional program.


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 12, 1999

TAMPA -- In one classroom, chemistry students watch as gas fills up a test tube. Down the hall, their classmates discuss erudite topics like the scientific method and inductive reasoning. In another room, students discuss Voltaire's Candide.

The scene could be a description of activities on a typical college campus. But in this case, the classes are at Hillsborough High School.

The classes are not part of an ordinary high school curriculum. They are specialized courses for high-achieving students in the International Baccalaureate program, where bright students participate in advanced classes and pursue an internationally recognized diploma.

The IB program, founded in the 1960s, is headquartered in Switzerland and operates in 100 countries. In Hillsborough County, it serves both as a forum of academic excellence and a tool of integration. In both areas, the results are mixed.

Students in IB are unquestionably high achievers. All recent graduates of the IB programs at King and Hillsborough high schools have gone to college, and many of them enter with enough credits to achieve sophomore status. They consistently score far higher than the county and state averages on standardized tests, and most receive academic scholarships.

One downside academically is that one-quarter to one-third of Hillsborough County students who complete four years in the rigorous program don't receive an IB diploma, which is internationally recognized and assists students in getting certain scholarships and getting into some universities. Instead, they receive regular high school diplomas.

Some students leave the program when they discover the odds of not getting an IB diploma. Others think the diploma is important enough that they repeat the test after a year of college, with hopes of earning the specialized diploma a year late.

"They are realizing that a document or a credential can open doors for them," said Gary McCutcheon, an assistant principal at Hillsborough High who oversees the school's IB program. The IB diploma "is recognized worldwide, and many of these students have a focus outside of Tampa," he said.

As a method of integration, the IB program looks good on paper. At King and Hillsborough, the program has added many white students to schools that otherwise would have a higher percentage of black students than federal courts deem appropriate. The IB program at both schools is about 15 percent black.

In the hallways and classrooms, though, a murkier picture emerges. IB students have friends in the traditional programs at their schools, and many have boyfriends or girlfriends in the traditional program. They perform in dancerettes and band together, and they compete on the same soccer and swim teams.

But IB students take classes mostly with others in the program, and, naturally, they tend to form social groups there. At Hillsborough High, the IB students have a lunch period set aside primarily for them.

When they walk down the hall between classes, many IB students say, there is a pronounced gap between them and the traditional students.

Megan Rieger, a senior in the Hillsborough IB program, said she has friends from the traditional program who perform in the band with her. But in the hallways, she said, some traditional students talk about "the IB snobs."

"People say they can see if you're an IB student," said John Samuelsen, a senior in Hillsborough's IB program. "I guess we just have that look on us."

The bell rings, and Advanced Placement chemistry students grab their loaded backpacks. They rush off to their lockers and second-period classes.

One IB student spots his girlfriend, who is in the traditional program, and grabs her hand. They talk briefly, then hurry to their separate classes before the bell rings.

For most IB and traditional students at Hillsborough, this is a rare chance to mingle during the school day. They mostly take separate classes, except for a few electives outside the IB program. They have different teachers, different lunch periods, different guidance counselors. They even have separate valedictorians at graduation each year.

It's like a school within a school, which has benefits and drawbacks. IB students say they like the specialized attention they get from the program's directors and advisers, and they say the teachers -- many of whom have master's and doctorate degrees -- are the best they've ever had.

One byproduct of the schedule is that IB students could easily go a whole day without talking to a student in the traditional program.

"The only time we see traditional students is in electives," senior Kathryn Fowler said. She noted that many IB students don't have electives outside the IB program.

A state education plan could reinforce the separation of IB and traditional programs. Gov. Jeb Bush's university admissions plan would guarantee that the top 20 percent of each class would be accepted by at least one of Florida's 10 public universities.

To ensure that IB students don't eat up a majority of those slots at schools like Hillsborough and King, one proposal would treat IB and traditional programs as separate groups.

Administrators and other school employees say there is bound to be some separation between IB and traditional students. But they say the situation has improved since the programs began at Hillsborough in 1990 and at King in 1993.

"When it first started, it was more isolated," said Beverly DeMott, the district's supervisor for magnet schools. "But now, the kids are fuller members of their school."

The IB program has helped the schools work toward a goal of integration. With the mostly white IB students, Hillsborough has a black population of 36 percent; without them, it would be 43 percent. With the IB students, King has a black population of 40 percent; without them, it would be 48 percent.

Last year, a federal judge criticized some Hillsborough County schools for being more than 40 percent black.

Although IB and traditional students tend to be separate during the school day, many of them cross the divide with extracurricular activities. As part of the program's requirements, IB students must complete at least 150 hours of "creativity, action and service" activities. Many IB students go far beyond the minimum requirement.

Lesley Diaz, a sophomore at Hillsborough, participates in activities common among IB students. She is a member of the marching band's dancerettes group, a summer volunteer at St. Joseph's Hospital, and a member of the math team, Latin Club, Key Club and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The groups have students from both the IB and traditional programs, she said.

When she went to Hillsborough, she left behind many of her friends from middle school. Like other IB students, she found new friends in classes and in these clubs. She said many IB students find their closest friends within the program.

"We're all alike," she said. "We're all really focused and we all have the same goals."

In the senior class at Wharton High, Erin Van Tries is in line to be named salutatorian. She is bright, academically competitive and hopes to attend Brown University.

After her freshman year in the IB program at King High, she left the school. It wasn't that she couldn't handle the program or even that she didn't like it there. The problem, she said, is that she worried she wouldn't pass enough of the tests to receive the IB diploma.

"I don't take tests well. I never have," she said. "Why would I want to risk it all on a whole bunch of exams?"

At Hillsborough High last year, 32 percent of IB students did not receive the IB diploma. At King, 26 percent did not.

At least six will retake tests at Hillsborough this year in an attempt to earn the diploma a year late, even though they already are in college, McCutcheon said.

To earn the diploma, students must complete a class called "theory of knowledge," complete their creativity, action and service activities and score at least 24 points out of a possible 42 on six tests.

Some students say that even if they don't earn the diploma, they still think they have learned more in IB than they would have in traditional high school classes.

"If you get the diploma, that's just a plus," Samuelsen said.

The real benefit, he said, is how well the program prepares him for college.

"When I go to college," Samuelsen said, "it's probably going to be easier than this."

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