What an International Baccalaureate designation really means for neighborhood schools

Woodrow Wilson High School spent two years and tens of thousands of dollars (most of it donations) to become an International Baccalaureate World School.

When the school year starts in August, about 120 freshmen will enter Woodrow as “pre-IB”, meaning they intend to take challenging courses and pursue an IB diploma. The curriculum is so tough and the standards so high that only about 80 percent of them will obtain the IB diploma.

So what is the point of an IB education?

“IB is about developing critical thinkers,” says Kathy Scherler, who oversees the IB program at Woodrow. “They’re not interested in a student who can regurgitate a fact.”

Standardized testing and learning how to navigate a multiple-choice test has led students to neglect some of those critical-thinking skills, she says.

An IB diploma, which students earn during their junior and senior years, requires students to choose three higher-level courses and three standard-level courses each semester. So students who enjoy math, for example, can take IB courses in higher math. And they can take standard courses — equivalent to Advanced Placement classes — say, in history.

They also must write a 4,000-word essay on the topic of their choice and perform 150 hours of community service. And at the end of each class, they take written exams graded by IB examiners throughout the world. So even if students pass classes on their grade reports, they must still pass the exam to earn IB credit.

An IB diploma comes with up to 24 hours of credit at some colleges, so an IB graduate potentially can enter college as a sophomore. Students who finish the coursework but aren’t awarded an IB diploma can still receive an IB certificate for exams completed and apply for credit at college, too.

District 2 school board member Mike Morath graduated with an IB diploma from Garland High School in 1995. He was one of about 15 students in his class to receive the diploma, and another 100 or so received certificates, he says.

“The difference, more than anything else, is writing,” he says. “My senior year, I was turning out a four-page paper every week.”

After studying days, nights and weekends on end for IB exams, the workload in college seemed like a breeze, he says. And there was a financial payoff.

Morath became a National Merit Scholar and finished college in two and a half years, which he figures saved about $20,000.

“I was able to do more than my peers,” he says. “I took 18 hours and worked 20 hours a week. The work wasn’t any different than what I had been doing [in high school].”

The demanding coursework is not for everyone, and it can be distressing even for the brightest kids.

Tara Woodruff of Forest Hills says her daughter, who will be a sophomore this school year, is “an over-achiever”. And as such, she says she was a little disappointed to see Bs on her report card for the first time after she took several pre-IB courses at Woodrow.

“With IB, there’s a project due in every course every six weeks,” Woodruff says. “But the cool thing is, if they’re learning about Africa in geography, they’re also learning about it in history and literature. It’s a holistic approach to learning.”

Being an IB World School also is good public relations for the school, and it already has drawn students from private schools.

Suzanne Bass had enrolled her son Nathan in private schools his entire life until last school year, when she says a friend convinced her to “take a risk” on the pre-IB program at Woodrow.

The curriculum is challenging for Nathan, who took a physics class over the summer, she says. But Bass says the advantages of IB can be even greater than those of a top-notch private school. Students are encouraged to travel, and they can communicate online with IB students worldwide.

“It’s a tough, tough program. You’ve really got to dedicate yourself to do the work,” Bass says. “But you’re getting to know students all over the world. He will reap tremendous benefits and have a worldwide connection.”

J.L. Long Middle School, which feeds to Woodrow, has been accepted as a candidate in the IB Middle Years Program. The Middle Years Program is not a curriculum so much as a philosophy. Teachers throughout the school will begin grooming students to be IB learners. That is, they will try to instill in them the traits required for success in IB. According to the International Baccalaureate Organization, successful IB students are: inquirers, knowledgeable, thinkers, communicators, principled, open-minded, caring, risk-takers, balanced and reflective. Scherler is working with neighborhood elementary schools to get the IB Early Years Program, “so we can get a full continuum of IB,” she says.

IB costs students about $500 a year in testing and registration fees, but the nonprofit Woodrow Community Foundation raises money for students who cannot afford the fees. The foundation also helps fund Woodrow’s costs to maintain the IB program, which are about $10,000 a year. And Scherler receives help from IB to write and apply for grants to help pay for IB-specific teacher training.

One pending grant, from the U.S. Department of Education, would allow any student at Woodrow to take two IB courses per semester and receive an IB Career Certificate in the study area of their choice.

“We’re trying to open the door wider for all Woodrow students to reach their goals past high school,” Scherler says.

Even when students don’t achieve an IB diploma, studies show that students who take IB courses are more likely to attend college and score higher on college entrance exams such as the S.A.T.

“We do have kids who come in and struggle,” Scherler says. “But because they struggle, they learn to achieve.”


Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.