Proposed changes to storied program roil Denver high school

Update after Saturday’s meeting, May 10, 2 p.m.

When the Saturday morning meeting about proposed changes to George Washington High School’s International Baccalaureate program got off to a raucous, even unruly start in the school library, a mixed group of IB and non-IB students decided to take matters into their own hands.

As angry parents who had expected an open forum but found themselves in a less interactive session  tried to shout down Denver Public Schools administrators, a group of about 20 students calmly retreated to a computer lab and spent 90 minutes devising their own list of recommendations.

The student gathering was impassioned but calm and when two students started talking at once, one of their peers chimed in with “C’mon, guys, let’s not be like the parents.”

For their part, parents said they had legitimate reasons to be angry. They cited a letter penned last week by GW Principal Micheal Johnson that promised the meeting would “address any questions or concerns that may arise about our future direction.” Instead, DPS officials made it clear from the outset that they were not going to answer questions but rather would hold “breakout sessions” on “becoming a destination high school,” “improving communications and school culture,” and ensuring academic excellence for all students.”

Parents said they felt impending changes to one of DPS’ most academically successful programs were sprung on them with little notice and no opportunity for them to provide input. “This was all done sub rosa,” said Leslie Lilly, whose son is an IB program 10th-grader. 

Over 200 people packed the meeting. The number of people opposed to or concerned about the changes appeared to outnumber supporters by a 4-1 margin.

The idea behind Johnson’s proposed changes is to open up the elite academic IB program to more students, which currently is open almost exclusively to students who apply in eighth grade, are accepted and begin the four-year program at the start of their high school career.  Several IB students said the concept of more open access was admirable, but the proposed execution was deeply flawed.

Kevin Omana, 18, is an IB senior, an undocumented student who came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was three. He said his time at Denver’s Cole Middle School “didn’t even come close” to preparing him for the rigors of IB. “I stayed up until midnight studying until I caught up,” he said.

Omana called the proposed dismantling of the pre-IB program “appalling,” because a rigorous course of study in grades nine and 10 is the only way to prepare for the Diploma Program, which spans grades 11 and 12. He said he has seen no evidence that the GW administration sought feedback from IB students or parents about the changes.  If they had asked him he said, he would have told them that with the changes, the school is “setting up all students who come here for failure.”

He was part of the group of students who came up with their own plan, which was presented to a smaller and somewhat calmer group of parents at the conclusion of the three-hour meeting. Instead of abolishing pre-IB, the students suggested, it should be opened up to any students who wanted to take on the challenge. But the program must not under any circumstances be made less rigorous, they said.

The problem at GW, several students said, is the “closedness” of the IB program combined with what they said was the poor quality of the school’s honors and Advanced Placement classes leaves motivated students not in the IB program with no real recourse.

One student said she was so poorly prepared by her AP Spanish class this semester that she wept while taking the AP exam because she knew she had no chance of passing.

So the student group recommended a substantial strengthening of the honors/AP track at GW. A strong honors program at the ninth and tenth-grade level would allow students to choose between a strong AP program or the IB Diploma Program, they said.

Student body President Jahnee Hughes said the problem up to now has been that AP has been “under IB’s shadow. There just hasn’t been a huge focus on it.” She said the school’s administration and “traditional parents” need to be more engaged in supporting the honors and AP programs.

Then, looking around the room where students worked diligently on a  plan with no adult supervision, she said: “It’s crazy that we had to head into this room to have our own meeting.”

Original story starts below:

Changes are coming to the storied International Baccalaureate program at Denver’s George Washington High School, and some students, parents and teachers connected to the program are up in arms.

George Washington principal Micheal Johnson says his school needs to provide better educational opportunities to more of the school’s students, and that the changes he is pushing will do that without watering down IB.

For almost 30 years, the IB program at GW has educated a small group of high-performing students and sent many of them off to some of the nation’s most elite colleges. The rigorous four-year program admits students based on grades, test scores, teacher recommendations and interviews. Ninth- and tenth-grade students take “pre-IB” courses to prepare them for the rigors of the IB Diploma Program, which spans grades 11 and 12 and whose curriculum is set by an international organization.

Just over 400 of GW’s 1,424 students are enrolled in the program.

Johnson, in his second year as principal,  will present details at a meeting tomorrow at 9 a.m. in the school library. Those who oppose the changes are expected to turn out in force.

The changes are coming to pre-IB, which is not part of the official International Baccalaureate Organization curriculum, but rather a school-designed preparatory program that has been part of GW’s IB program since its inception in 1985.

Eighth-graders apply to the IB program, which encompasses pre-IB and the Diploma Program. If admitted, they take all core courses exclusively with other IB students for four years, making the IB program in effect a small, elite school within a larger urban high school. IB students do participate in elective classes, sports and other extracurricular activities with the rest of the student body.

Johnson plans to do away with the pre-IB program a year from now and replace it with an honors program that is open to all GW students the school deems ready for rigorous academic classes. This means there would no longer be a selective admissions system for IB, and students interested in pursuing an IB diploma would take ninth and tenth grade honors classes with students working towards Advanced Placement classes or other offerings at GW.

In an interview, Johnson said that the changes, which would go into effect in the 2015-16 school year, are necessary because significant “opportunity gaps” exist at his school, and “a lot of times we don’t grab some of the students who could be benefitting from [more rigorous academics].” The IB program is heavily skewed towards more affluent students, district data shows, despite the fact that the majority of GW students come from low-income backgrounds.

The school also received a grant earlier this year to launch a major expansion of its Advanced Placement program beginning next school year. Students who successfully pass either IB or AP exams can gain significant college credit.

Johnson said he started pondering changes to GW’s higher-level course offerings when, during conversations with students, he heard complaints about the quality of classes outside of the IB program. Students expressed frustration that “in one area of the school there is great education and in another area it’s just OK.”

“Out of the mouths of children comes the reality of what we have to look at as educators,” he said.

Johnson also hopes the changes will help reverse GW’s steadily declining enrollment. Currently, two-thirds of students who have GW as their neighborhood school opt to go elsewhere.

But some IB parents, teachers and students are opposing the changes, saying they are bound to water down the rigor of the four-year experience and leave rising 11th-graders unprepared for the rigors of the diploma program. Currently all pre-IB courses are taught by teachers who also teach the Diploma Program courses.

“Without taking specific classes that prepared me for the actual IB program, I think I would be failing every class right now,” one IB 11th-grader wrote in an email to Johnson this week.

But Johnson said the core of the program would remain untouched. IB courses in the Diploma Program at GW will remain reserved exclusively for students pursuing the diploma. At some schools with IB programs, students not pursuing an IB diploma can take individual IB classes.

Saturday’s meeting, scheduled for two-and-a-half hours, is likely to be contentious, though Johnson plans to spend much of the time briefing the group on the outlines of his plan.

“I don’t think he wants our input,” said IB parent Kristen Tourangeau.