International flags hanging at Woodrow Wilson High SchoolInternational Baccalaureate adds an aura of prestige to four neighborhood campuses, appealing to families who might not otherwise consider public school.

When Kelly Ritchie was hired at Woodrow Wilson High School three years ago, she discovered a problem with the school’s vaunted International Baccalaureate (IB) program.

“I met with a lot of students who couldn’t explain IB or why they were in it,” she says.

“The community was confused about the requirements and also what the benefits were. There were teachers here who didn’t know about IB and didn’t support IB in theory but were working with our students, so that was creating real problems because of the disconnect.

“We had a handful of seniors who had made it that far but weren’t sure what they were doing or why they were doing it.”

From a marketing standpoint, Ritchie knew that IB was a hit for Woodrow and for the district.

But she also knew IB couldn’t succeed unless the program had total buy-in — and not just from eager parents.

“If you’ve got a child being drug through this program by the parents, it’s almost impossible to finish,” she says.

Ritchie knew her task: Make the IB program’s value to students live up to its hype.

What is IB anyway?

Woodrow was the catalyst of IB curriculum in Dallas ISD, which has spread to eight other schools since 2009. The rigorous program previously was available only at select private and charter schools in Dallas.

When IB launched at Woodrow seven years ago, a parent-led “Choose Woodrow” campaign was in full swing, and public school families were exploring ways to attract other families back to DISD. The district needed a marketing plan, something exciting that would refocus parents’ interest in Dallas public schools.

A group of parents, teachers and administrators approached DISD with an idea: What if Woodrow became the incubator for the IB curriculum in Dallas? What if that working group could raise enough money to complete the lengthy application process and devise a curriculum to meet IB’s stringent requirements?

Would DISD fund the teacher training needed to offer the program and help promote it throughout the Dallas area?

The Woodrow IB group had a powerful ally with firsthand IB experience: Mike Morath, then DISD board member for the East Dallas/Preston Hollow area, graduated with an IB degree from Garland ISD and loved the program.

Morath backed the idea, the Woodrow IB group completed its fundraising and curriculum planning, and DISD provided the necessary tactical and financial support.

And in 2011, Woodrow became DISD’s flagship IB school.

The IB website defines the program like this: “(IB) is a nonprofit educational foundation offering four highly respected programmes of international education that develop the intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills needed to live, learn and work in a rapidly globalizing world… The IB has a hard-earned reputation for high standards of teaching, pedagogical leadership and student achievement. We work with schools, governments and international organizations to develop challenging programmes of international education and rigorous assessment.”

IB students simply read more, write more and work harder than students in other programs, and the learning is said to be more holistic. Instead of students asking “Why do I need to learn this?”, the program is structured to make obvious what students can do with their newfound knowledge.

Stop. Look. Listen.

Once Woodrow was certified for IB, neighborhood parents’ unofficial PR machine kicked into high gear, students flocked to the program, and IB in Dallas public schools was off and running.

And then Ritchie came onto the scene.

She quickly identified the opportunities and the issues: To make things right with Woodrow’s program, the program’s promotion needed overhauling. That meant correcting misconceptions.

“There’s a perception that this program was for a particular demographic,” Ritchie says. “That’s absolutely not the case. Those statements come from people who don’t know our students. In the junior class, our [IB] minority students outnumber our white students.”

Skin color, family size, extracurricular portfolio — none of those characteristics determine whether a student will succeed or fail in IB, she says.

“There’s really no mold for IB,” Ritchie says. “It’s very much based on motivation. That’s the unifying factor for all of our students.”

The student who succeeds in IB will have “a love of learning, be intrinsically motivated, can meet deadlines,” she says. “It’s not, ‘Here, your test is going to be on this, be ready on Friday.’ ”

Her IB diploma candidates include students who will be the first in their families to go to college. Some have little to no support at home; some have parents who don’t speak English.

“Those students may not earn the diploma, but it doesn’t matter because they’ve done something that students in much different situations couldn’t do or chose not to do,” Ritchie says.

Earning the diploma requires not just completing the program but scoring high enough on exams. Students who earn the diploma can be awarded as many as 24 credits at many colleges, and Ritchie says her graduates have used those credits to finish college early or even double major and still finish in four years, or perhaps spend a semester abroad.

Only 10 Woodrow graduates received the diploma in 2014 and 2015, the first two years with seniors who started in the IB program as freshmen. That number doubled this year — 21 earned an IB diploma — as did the number of juniors who opted to continue on the diploma path — 62 this fall, compared to 29 in fall 2013.

Those numbers should grow over time, but the diploma numbers themselves do not drive Ritchie, nor does she exit students from the program who don’t show potential to earn the diploma, as many other IB schools do to increase their passing percentages. The diploma is not the be-all, end-all of IB, she maintains; it’s icing on the cake.

IB’s impact spreads to feeder schools

IB isn’t just for high school students. An affiliated program also is offered for elementary and middle schools.

In high school, students apply to become part of the IB program, however, for elementary and middle schools, the program is baked into the entire curriculum.

The presumed ability to raise the bar for all students encouraged Woodrow feeder schools J.L. Long Middle School and Robert E. Lee and Lipscomb elementaries to become IB schools. (Hillcrest High School and schools under its umbrella — Franklin Middle School along with Preston Hollow and Kramer elementaries — also have signed up as IB schools. DISD magnet Harry Stone Montessori now has an IB academy for its seventh- and eighth-grade students.)

Woodrow, Long and Harry Stone are the only DISD schools authorized by the International Baccalaureate organization; the rest are in various stages of candidacy, which lasts at least three years as campuses work to implement IB instruction and philosophies.

IB schools accomplish two goals, says Tracie Fraley, executive director of Woodrow and its feeder schools: “attract people back, and raise the floor for everyone.”

That’s what Tiffany Yackuboskey says she has observed at Long over the past four years.

Yackuboskey was the school’s 2015-16 IB coordinator, but when she started at Long, she taught remedial classes. IB at Long is just as much for remedial students as it is for advanced students, she says. It doesn’t put them on the same level, but it pushes all of them to their own next level.

Long hosted a student-led IB showcase last year for the community, and Yackuboskey marveled at the crowd’s diversity. People anticipated that an IB program at Long would “speak to” more affluent families in the East Dallas neighborhoods and “get them back in our doors again,” she says.

Those families were present at the showcase, but so were a lot of Spanish-speaking parents, who followed student translators through the classrooms, and parents of deaf and special education students. Teachers handpicked these parents’ children as shining examples of IB’s success.

Yackuboskey remembers thinking: “These are the possibilities we’ve been waiting to see.”

As people walked through Long that night, they observed projects showing off IB’s holistic ideals. In one classroom, students had been asked to write a screenplay, with an accompanying movie poster, on what would happen if the moon didn’t exist.

“One kid incorporated Channing Tatum and Donald Trump into his story,” Yackuboskey says. “You can see how that type of learning in the classroom is way more impactful than if the kid just took notes on what the moon does and then took a test on it.”

IB instruction “gets the kids to take their learning to a deeper level that isn’t a multiple-choice test, but could be covered in a multiple-choice test,” Yackuboskey says.

Lipscomb principal Roxanne Cheek is seeing those effects at her own school, where “across the board, our students are thriving.” Cheek says Lipscomb ranked in the top 10 percent of 200-plus elementary schools across the district this past year, with scores “above and beyond what they were the previous year.”

The “holistic approach to everything” is the key, says Keith Peeler, Lipscomb dad and chairman of the school’s site-based decision-making committee.

“We don’t just learn math over here; we see that math happens in social studies,” he says. “It’s the blending of it all. I don’t hear my kids struggling with one subject anymore.”

Which students enroll in IB?

At Long, Lee and Lipscomb, IB is for everyone. By the time students reach Woodrow, however, the program’s rigor steepens. The 95 students who will enter the program as freshmen this year were chosen from roughly 175 applications.

Those applications come from throughout Dallas. In Ritchie’s three years at Woodrow, about a third of her IB students attended Long, another third attended other DISD schools, and another third are private, charter or homeschooled students before they enter.

Ritchie and her team look carefully at the applicants — their writing skills (“The program is heavily writing based; there’s no real redemption in regard to that,” she says); their grades (“Sometimes a pattern leaves us wondering if they’re very serious about their work”); absences (“You really need to be able to be on campus absorbing material”); and indications of behavioral issues.

That said, Ritchie says she tries not to exclude students solely on their eighth-grade selves.

“We’ve extended invitations to kids who haven’t fit the exact mold you would expect,” she says. “We’ve talked to students personally, and some have a compelling story about a desire for bettering themselves in the future. We give them that opportunity to make a change for their life.”

It’s not true that being a Woodrow IB student means giving up everything else, she says.

But the program does require total commitment, she says. Its higher-level classes expect more from students, not to mention the required 4,000-word research essay (by way of comparison, this story is roughly 2,000 words).

“There are external requirements you cannot do within school hours. Students have to be motivated and engaged in the process,” Ritchie says. “They will be giving up nights and weekends when their friends are out doing the things they want to do, and they have to be OK with that, ultimately.

“Anybody can do it, but not everybody will.”

Now that IB has made its way to Long, Lee and Lipscomb, within a few years, Woodrow will begin to welcome students who became familiar with IB in elementary school, immersed themselves deeper in middle school, and arrive at high school truly understanding what IB is.

“Hopefully they will see IB as a viable option and not something scary that they don’t want to tackle because they will already be in the mindset of what we’re doing here — developing your voice, thinking critically about what you’re being told, what you’re being read,” Ritchie says.

This could increase the number of Woodrow IB students who attended Long. Ritchie’s goal, however, is not to stuff as many students as she can into the IB box, but to locate each and every student who already fits.

“The kids who genuinely need to be in this program will find us,” she says, “and we will find them.”

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