In one corner of Rockville High School on a recent afternoon, teams of students were building parallel circuits for an engineering course. Upstairs, another group mused about the meaning of beauty for a class called “Theory of Knowledge.”

America’s high schools have historically separated students who learn technical skills from those studying the liberal arts, preparing them for distinct futures.

Education reform over the past three decades has centered on undoing such tracking and strengthening the academic foundation for everyone, thanks to an economy that demands ever higher education for almost any job. Still, experts say there remains too wide a gulf between many career-oriented programs and a broader degree.

A new college-preparatory International Baccalaureate curriculum designed for students pursuing career or technical education aims to bridge the gap. Rockville High has applied to the Geneva-based IB organization to offer an “IB career-related certificate” in future years. If the application is approved, Rockville will become one of the first high schools in the country to offer what some educators are calling a cutting-edge fusion of college and career preparation.

Jennifer Forrest, a Rockville High engineering teacher, said her students would benefit from the writing and international focus for which IB is known. But with so many math and other technical requirements, few of the students pursue the intensive IB program. “They feel like they are pulled to choose,” she said. “With this program, they could do both.”

IB, started in 1968 in Switzerland, is designed to be an internationally recognized curriculum that promotes cross-cultural understanding. It is now offered in more than 3,000 schools in about 140 countries, and its use is growing rapidly in the United States.

Montgomery County is home to the U.S. headquarters of the organization and also one of the largest concentrations of IB students, with 14 programs in eight high schools, five middle schools and one elementary school.

The demanding high school IB diploma requires students to take at least six IB courses, including a foreign language and a theory of knowledge course that promotes critical thinking. They’re also required to perform community service and write a 4,000-word research essay. The courses have lengthy final exams and can lead to college credit.

For the career-related certificate, students would be expected to take two IB courses, plus a course on different learning styles and a foreign language. Community service and a reflective final project also would be required, in addition to the students technical courses.

The “softer” skills that come from a liberal arts education are becoming increasingly valuable in a fast-changing labor market, educators say. Analyzing Shakespeare or debating and formulating ideas on the page or in a classroom builds important communication and thinking skills.

The new program could produce more articulate and creative engineers and computer scientists, its proponents say. The rigor and prestige of IB also could lend esteem and an inroad to college for occupational training programs not typically associated with higher learning, such as cosmetology or construction.

“The misconception is that anything that has ‘career’ attached to it is second-class,” said Drew Deutsch, regional director for the IB program in North America, who visited Rockville High recently with an international delegation of the program’s Board of Governors.

As college preparation has become the norm for high school students, the percentage of teens who take four or more career or technical classes has dropped from 28 percent in 1982 to 17 percent, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.

Some experts say that’s a potentially risky trend. Research shows a lot of students benefit from more applied learning in high school; they are less likely to drop out and more likely to work hard when they see the economic benefit of what they are studying.

“In the American economy, the highest earnings go to people with the richest mix of general and specific education,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce.

Doctors and lawyers, for example, have several years of general education followed by several years of specific education, he said. But not everyone has the luxury or time to extend their education for so long, so it helps to offer both simultaneously in high school.

IB leaders have been eager to expand the program far beyond its elite, private-school roots. Already, it has gained traction in some of the toughest public schools in the United States.

Principals embrace the program as a way to make the curriculum more challenging or to build on the international experience of immigrant students.

To encourage participation, many schools have dropped admission requirements for IB, a trend that is common for Advanced Placement courses as well.

During the recent visit to College Gardens Elementary School in Rockville, the only Montgomery school to offer the IB curriculum for the primary years, Montgomery Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr said the program teaches important life and career skills.

“We recognize that IB is for everybody,” he said.

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