The Internation Baccalaurate Program- a challenging curriculum that combines classwork with community service- is used by high schools in 117 countries, including some right here. Also, a look at a novel mentoring program that helps freshmen fit in.
The rigorous International Baccalaureate Program ¡ª a staple in schools from Brazil to Brunei ¡ª also challenges students in the Valley
by Valerie Havas
Photograph by Chris Ware
Many high schools are looking to give their students a competitive edge in a world where the top colleges are increasingly selective, the job market is increasingly tight, and the economy is increasingly global. Their graduates, after all, are facing a future that may well be shaped by variables as diverse as the price of labor in India, the ingenuity of engineers in Japan, and the supply of oil in Saudi Arabia ¡ª not to mention the rising cost of tuition in the United States. To help equip their students for this brave new world, a number of local schools are using a powerful new academic tool: diplomas from the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO). Offered from Cairo to Sofia, Lisbon to Bombay, these prestigious ¡°IB¡± diplomas are now available closer to home, at places like Red Hook High School in Dutchess County.
Red Hook¡¯s first IB diplomas, eight in all, were awarded last spring, with the graduates moving on to such top-notch institutions as Dartmouth, Skidmore, and Boston¡¯s School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Some received college credit ¡ª as much as a year¡¯s worth ¡ª for their IB work. This year, the school has five diploma candidates, with many more earning IB-issued ¡°certificates¡± by completing one or more courses. According to Pat Mayo, Red Hook¡¯s IB coordinator, ¡°Some very prestigious colleges are saying that they put applications from IB students in a separate category ¡ª separate from the common herd.¡±
So how is an IB diploma different from a regular Regents diploma?
Perhaps most important, in the view of Red Hook Principal Roy Paisley, is that IB requirements are more demanding than today¡¯s Regents requirements. As he sees it, New York¡¯s decision requiring all high school students to take Regents exams has succeeded in raising standards for lower-performing students, but has had the unintended consequence of watering down standards for higher-performing kids. Before that policy change was enacted about 10 years ago, he says, ¡°If you got a Regents diploma, you could pretty much say you were prepared to do college-level work at a four-year college.¡± That¡¯s no longer necessarily true, he believes, because ¡°the state hasn¡¯t done anything to raise standards, or to set a benchmark like the old Regents diploma used to be.¡± As a result, he says, ¡°We looked around to see what we could do to offer these kids what I consider to be a first-class education.¡±
What Paisley and his colleagues found was the IB program, which requires students to take challenging courses, and to undergo rigorous assessments, in six different subject areas. At Red Hook these six areas are English (including world literature); a learned language (typically French, German, or Spanish); history; experimental sciences (biology, chemistry, physics); mathematics; and visual arts or music.
To obtain an IB diploma, Red Hook students must also produce an extended essay, the culmination of 40 hours or so of independent research and writing. Meagan Griffin, a senior, is relieved that her essay, on ¡°The Influence of Women in Music,¡± is finished. ¡°There wasn¡¯t much information on the topic, so it was difficult,¡± she recalls. The whole experience, she admits, ¡°planted seeds of doubt¡± about her decision to pursue an IB diploma. But, she adds, ¡°I don¡¯t have any regrets now that the extended essay is behind me.¡± Another senior, Rebecca Berman, wrote an essay on ¡°Questioning the Role of Women in Jane Eyre and The Awakening.¡± Classmate Arianna Verrilli examined ¡°Andrew Jackson¡¯s Policies and How They Influenced our Relations with Native Americans.¡±
Another diploma requirement is the successful completion of IB¡¯s Theory of Knowledge course (TOK). TOK teacher Diana Decker explains that her students meet every other day over the course of two years. ¡°What we are basically looking at are different ways of knowing,¡± she comments. The class, she says, is an opportunity for students to reflect critically on such questions as, ¡°Which ways of knowing are used primarily in mathematics, and how is that different from the ways in which we may acquire truth in the arts?¡±
IB candidates are also expected to log at least 150 hours of activities in the areas of creativity, action, and service. Referring to this so-called CAS requirement, Mayo says, ¡°IB students must do more than traditional schoolwork.¡± Rebecca Berman has found the CAS requirement relatively easy, fulfilling it with such activities as leading a Brownie troop and playing her violin at historic houses. In contrast, Arianna Verrilli chafes at being coerced into doing specific extracurricular activities. Playing on the school tennis team, holding down a job, and taking part in various community activities, she considers herself to be a well-rounded individual ¡ª and yet she struggles to satisfy the requirements. ¡°I have way too many hours in service and action,¡± she explains, ¡°but find it difficult to fill those creativity hours. I just don¡¯t find it balanced. If I were to do it again, I think I would just do Advanced Placement courses.¡±
Another important difference between IB and regular curricula is in grading. In IB courses, says Mayo, ¡°About 80 percent of a student¡¯s final mark is given by someone who does not know the student, who is going to be totally objective in looking at their work.¡± The remaining 20 percent of the grade is given by the student¡¯s local teacher. But even such ¡°internal¡± assessments are externally monitored. Research papers and oral presentations, for example, are graded by Red Hook teachers. A sampling of the papers and taped presentations then gets sent to IBO-trained assessors who are charged with the task of ensuring that grading ¡ª which ranges from 1 to 7 ¡ª is consistent in schools around the world. As Mayo puts it, ¡°The IB assessors make sure that a Red Hook 6 is the same as a Dobbs Ferry 6 and a Pine Bush 6 and a London or a Jakarta 6.¡±
One of the major selling points of the IB curriculum is that it nurtures an awareness of other countries and cultures. One of last year¡¯s IB math students researched the links between population growth rate and economic status in various nations. Examining the situations in six different countries, the student generated data, drew conclusions, and produced a fairly sophisticated research paper. An international perspective is also incorporated into literature courses. Paisley, recalling his own daughter¡¯s experience with IB English, says, ¡°The books they read were oftentimes ones we had never heard of. They weren¡¯t popular here, but they were classics in their own countries.¡± Speaking of current IB students, he says, ¡°They¡¯re not only learning about a foreign country and a foreign culture; they are also learning about it through the eyes of someone who lived there¡ It isn¡¯t all Hawthorne and Melville.¡± This year, notes Mayo, one student is studying Korean literature in a self-taught Korean studies class.
Similarly, in Joan Metzler¡¯s IB Visual Arts class, students must think globally as well as locally. One student, who hopes to attend the U.S. Military Academy, has chosen to study the ¡°art of honor¡± as it has been reflected in places like West Point, China, Pakistan, and ancient Rome. His study is encompassing such different aspects of art as medal-engraving techniques, the design of coats of arms, and the architecture of military institutions. Another student, whose ¡°very flat and lined¡± painting is hanging on the classroom wall, is obviously familiar with the work of Henri Matisse, for starters, as well as with the art of stained-glass windows.
Knowledge of art and artists from around the world is essential to the IB art student¡¯s final assessment, a 45-minute oral exam administered by someone from the field of art, but who is not a teacher. Last year, the test was administered by a New York City¨Cbased art critic. In the exam, Metzler says, ¡°Students have to be able to refer their art to contextual, non-Western art; they have to be able to refer their art to art that is comparative in art history throughout the ages.¡± They also have to speak about the aesthetic qualities of their own work and about the research they¡¯ve done on their chosen artistic themes. ¡°IB,¡± she concludes, ¡°has come up with a universal umbrella, a set of criteria that works in America, works in Wales, works in Zimbabwe, works wherever there is an IB school.¡±
The IB program, admits Mayo, is not for everyone. ¡°These are challenging courses,¡± she stresses. ¡°Some kids are not ready for the amount of dedication it takes.¡± Students agree. ¡°It definitely gets tough at times,¡± says Meagan Griffin. ¡°It¡¯s not something you can do a half-job of.¡±
Still, Principal Paisley insists that IB is not just for the school¡¯s upper echelon. Looking back to the days when Red Hook just offered regular and Advanced Placement courses, Paisley finds that the IB program has attracted more students across the academic spectrum. ¡°The AP tended to be a real sorting mechanism,¡± he remembers. ¡°Only the top 10 or 15 percent of the kids would even touch the AP program, whereas with the IB program, about 40 percent of the kids in our junior and senior classes are taking at least one AP or IB course.¡±
An added bonus, according to Paisley, is that the IB program has not been a financial burden to the school district. ¡°Every district has a pot of money that they use for staff development,¡± he notes, ¡°and a pot of money for curriculum development. What we did was shift our priorities.¡± The resources Red Hook has devoted to IB, he believes, have been wisely spent. ¡°Yes, there¡¯s been some expense, but I really don¡¯t think it¡¯s significant in terms of what we got for our money,¡± he declares. ¡°We¡¯re providing a challenge for our brightest kids.¡± And that, he believes, is priceless. ¡ö
Diplomas with a Difference
The International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO), a Geneva-based non-profit education foundation, offers a diploma program for students aged 16-19 who are in their final two years of schooling. According to the organization¡¯s promotional literature, ¡°The Diploma Program incorporates the best elements of national systems, without being based on any one.¡± Students can easily transfer from one IB school to another, which is handy for those whose parents happen to be globe-trotting diplomats or international financiers. But even kids who stay put during their high school years can expect to benefit from what IBO describes as an academic experience emphasizing ¡°critical thinking, intercultural understanding and exposure to a variety of points of view.¡±
IBO is currently working with 1,433 schools in 117 countries. IBO also offers courses for students aged 11-16 (the Middle Years Program) and ones aged 3-12 (the Primary Years Program). Schools in the Hudson Valley offering the Diploma Program include Red Hook High School in Dutchess County, Dobbs Ferry High School and Yonkers Middle/High School in Westchester, and Pine Bush High School in Orange County. Pine Bush is expecting its first crop of IB graduates this spring: 23 seniors are diploma candidates. Pine Bush IB Coordinator Mark Cartisano has been pleasantly surprised by how students have responded to the demands of the program. ¡°The thing that is most exciting for me is that the kids have really taken on the challenge,¡± he reports. In his view, ¡°IB is the way education ought to be done. It¡¯s student-centered and student-directed.¡± It nurtures critical thinking, he adds, and ¡°ties in all the disciplines.¡±
For more information on the International Baccalaureate Organization, go to www.ibo.org.
Helping, Not Hazing
When Caitlin Connelly first entered Ulster County¡¯s Rondout High School a couple of years ago, upperclassmen weren¡¯t exactly rolling out the welcome mat. Freshmen were pretty much on their own, whether they were struggling to find the science wing or figure out which clubs to join. Some of the older kids were anything but role models, pelting younger classmates with eggs at pep rallies or enticing them to off-campus drinking parties.
After one alcohol-fueled party generated headlines ¡ª and criminal charges ¡ª Connelly approached faculty member Franny Hertz for a bit of brainstorming. The result was Newcomers Uplifted (NU), a group that encourages older students to act as mentors to incoming freshmen. ¡°We came up with an idea for this great program to build acceptance and to embrace everyone ¡ª especially the younger ones,¡± recalls Connelly, who is now a 17-year-old junior.
Hertz, Rondout¡¯s School-to-Career Coordinator, immediately saw the potential benefits to such a program: ¡°If all freshmen had someone to go to when they entered high school,¡± she reasoned, ¡°then they wouldn¡¯t be in such a fog and could be productive right away.¡± Hertz and English teacher Joe Reeder quickly agreed to serve as faculty advisors.
Principal William Cafiero also threw his support behind the endeavor. ¡°There are more freedoms available [in high school],¡± he notes, ¡°and these bring¡more responsibility and choice.¡± The program, he hoped, would help new students make a smooth transition ¡ª and the right choices.
Julia Doran, currently a junior, joined Connelly in launching NU last year. At first the program was voluntary, with freshmen being paired with mentors at their request. Realizing that many students who needed help didn¡¯t sign up, Connelly and Doran worked with the administration to make participation mandatory this year. Seeking ideas and advice, they visited Hastings High School in Westchester, which boasts a flourishing mentoring program.
This year, incoming students were welcomed by a student-led assembly and upperclassmen wearing ¡°We love Freshmen¡± tee shirts. The peer leaders, 41 in all, got to know their younger charges at an all-day field trip and at weekly meetings held during the students¡¯ lunch periods. ¡°A lot of the activities have to do with acceptance, self-confidence, and reaching out to others,¡± explains Connelly.
Not surprisingly, not all freshmen see the value of giving up their lunch hours. ¡°Some of the kids are pretty resistant,¡± admits Connelly. ¡°They don¡¯t say much, but they do keep coming.¡± Among the incentives are pizza parties, awarded to those groups showing perfect attendance for a month.
Though clearly a work-in-progress, Newcomers Uplifted is showing promise: ¡°More people know each other, know their names at least, but we¡¯re still trying to get everyone to take this really seriously,¡± says Connelly. ¡°It¡¯s getting there, slowly but surely.¡±
Assistant Principal Trudi Melamed-Turck agrees that NU is off to a good start. ¡°The overall atmosphere is good,¡± she declares, adding that the program may be playing a role in deterring negative behaviors. ¡°My hope is that the program continues and expands in the future.¡±
Concludes Hertz, ¡°It¡¯s showing that creating a sense of community is a possibility and a priority for staff, upperclassmen, the administration, and even some of the freshmen.¡± ¡ª V.H.