Schools See IB Degree as Way to Boost Minority Achievement

Breigh Miller, 19, a business management major at Georgia State University, got an IB degree from Mount Vernon High School.
Breigh Miller, 19, a business management major at Georgia State University, got an IB degree from Mount Vernon High School. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 17, 2005

A decade ago, Mount Vernon High School installed the International Baccalaureate program -- an obscure and difficult curriculum created in Switzerland -- because it needed something to save its plummeting academic reputation.

The sprawling campus of 1,700 students near Fairfax County's Route 1 corridor was absorbing a flood of low-income black and Hispanic students with low test scores, and middle-class families of all races were moving out. "No one wanted to go to that school if they didn't have to," said Robert R. Spillane, who was county school superintendent at the time.

By the end of the first year, the average score for the new IB students was below 4 (on a 7-point scale), the minimum for college credit. IB coordinator Betsy Calhoon, a slender, soft-voiced woman with fading red hair, wondered how the school would handle such a challenge.

And yet a decade later, the average IB test score at Mount Vernon has climbed to 4.51, a significant jump on the short scale. Nearly 400 students -- almost half of the school's juniors and seniors -- are taking the courses. And 35 percent of the IB students are black or Hispanic, a rare achievement for college-level programs, which usually have few minorities.

The once-unknown program has spread to two dozen other Washington area public high schools, including new IB schools this year in Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties, and has begun to inspire pre-IB programs in elementary and middle schools, most with the purpose of engaging more low-income students.

"The biggest benefit of IB to Mount Vernon High School is that now minority students have the same opportunities for an excellent high school education as the white students from more affluent homes," said Calhoon, recently retired and helping another struggling IB school near her home in Beaufort, S.C. "Any student who wants to excel can do so."

The program, however, has its critics. Some say IB does not align with some of the college courses for which it, like the much larger Advanced Placement program, was designed to substitute. Others say it puts too much emphasis on international understanding. One Fairfax County parent went so far as to say IB "promotes socialism, disarmament, radical environmentalism and moral relativism while attempting to undermine Christian religious values and national sovereignty."

Mount Vernon educators and students say it is the program's academic challenges -- a curriculum that demands deep analysis of selected topics and a 4,000-word paper in the senior year -- that have made it so effective.

IB came to Mount Vernon High because Kristen J. "Kris" Amundson, the neighborhood's representative on the Fairfax County school board in 1993, thought the school needed a shot of adrenalin, something that would convince middle-class families not to leave. She said parents did not like the pitying looks they got at cocktail parties when they said their kids went to Mount Vernon High.

Amundson, a writer and publicist for educational organizations, found an ally on the board in Ruth Turner, who had the same concerns about her neighborhood high school, J.E.B. Stuart. They lobbied other board members, cutting deal after deal to gather support for their pet project. By early 1993, the board had passed a budget item with money for the new program at Mount Vernon and Stuart.

An Early Struggle

Bernadette Glaze thought 7 a.m. was a horrible time to teach IB History of the Americas. The Mount Vernon High teacher absolutely had to have a cup of coffee if any thinking was to occur, and she knew many of her students felt the same. She made her large, first-floor classroom with big windows as comfortable and cozy as she could with some old rugs and a sofa. She set up a big table in the back of the room with a coffee pot, a hot-water pot, hot chocolate, bread, peanut butter and jelly.

It was still a struggle. Her students had little background in Latin America. She tried to make the chapter readings more palatable by using pre-reading strategies -- talking about unusually difficult but important vocabulary words, displaying maps, giving the history a more modern interpretation, as if she were an embedded TV correspondent broadcasting Simon Bolivar's latest battle.

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