Heading into summer, a sense of uncertainty and unease pervades the esteemed International Baccalaureate program at Denver’s George Washington High School.

Big changes are coming a year from now, when the school’s administration plans to open what has until now been a selective admissions program to more students, arguing that IB classes can remain academically challenging while also serving a more racially and socio-economically diverse population. Some current IB parents and students, however, have pushed back hard against the plans. They complain that school and district leaders have done an abysmal job communicating with them about the changes, leading them to fear the worst.

High schools around the country have traveled a similar path toward making IB enrollment more inclusive over the past two decades. Their experiences suggest that both sides in the GW tussle make some valid points. Principals who have opened up their IB programs report that rigor remains intact and exam pass rates at the end of senior year remain high, and independent research studies back their observations. They also say part of their success came from communicating clearly with parents and students early and consistently.

Chalkbeat has gathered what information is available about the direction of likely changes at George Washington. We have also looked at how similar changes implemented at IB high schools around the country have played out, and whether parents’ fears in those schools were well founded.

How IB at George Washington works

Denver added the prestigious International Baccalaureate program to George Washington in 1985 amid a broad push to create programs that would retain white families who were leaving the district during court-ordered busing for desegregation. Since then, the school’s IB program 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 four-year program admits students based on grades, test scores, teacher recommendations and interviews. Students who are admitted take all of their academic courses exclusively with other IB students for four years. Ninth- and 10th-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 were enrolled in the program during the 2013-14 school year. Compared to the overall GW population, the IB program student body is disproportionately white and affluent. In IB, 65 percent of students are white and 13 percent are from families so poor that they qualify for subsidized school lunches. In the non-IB part of GW, 15 percent of students are white and 63 percent qualify for subsidized lunches.

IB students do participate in elective classes, sports and other extracurricular activities with the rest of the student body, and non-IB students may take IB courses in music, visual arts, theater, and business and management.

But, according to Suzanne Geimer, GW’s IB coordinator, few non-IB students take advantage of these offerings. “[They] generally find the writing demand and the standards of production daunting,” Geimer said in an email.

Principal Micheal Johnson told Chalkbeat in May that his decision to overhaul the IB program at GW was aimed at increasing equity within the school.

“We cannot turn a blind eye on the opportunity gaps we have in our school,” he said.

Planned changes reflect a broad trend

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. While the changes would not affect current students, there would no longer be a selective admissions process for IB, and future GW students interested in pursuing an IB diploma would take ninth- and 10th-grade honors classes with students working towards Advanced Placement classes or other offerings at GW.

No changes are planned to the Diploma Program, which spans 11th and 12th grades. Many IB schools across the country allow students to take a single IB course, or a few courses, without pursuing the diploma, but Johnson has said he plans to keep the GW model intact, with only students pursuing the diploma taking the classes. He also plans to have only teachers trained in IB’s unique philosophy and practices teach the courses, although he said that over time he’d like all teachers at the school to get the training.

And Johnson plans to beef up GW’s Advanced Placement program, using its participation in a Colorado Education Initiative program to offer enhanced teacher training, student exam fees, classroom equipment and supplies, awards for those who excel, and Saturday study sessions for students. Up to now, the school’s AP program has been limited and weak, with just 24 percent of exams receiving passing scores.

Johnson’s plans are in keeping with a broad trend toward exposing more students to challenging courses. Across the country, school districts are looking for ways to get black and Latino students and students from poor families to enroll in AP courses.

New York City is adding AP courses to 55 high schools with many of those students. And Chicago has opened 15 high school IB programs — the most of any district — in recent years, largely in low-income neighborhoods.

A 2012 study by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research found that Chicago’s IB programs “seemed to be taking academically weaker, less advantaged students coming into high school and producing graduates with academic achievement comparable to graduates of selective enrollment schools.”

Kyle Westbrook, who runs IB programs in Chicago, said the key to a successful IB program is that schools design their curriculum to prepare students for the unique International Baccalaureate exams While schools with an authorized, grades 6-10 IB Middle Years Program — which GW does not have — can plan backwards most seamlessly, “that doesn’t suggest a student in an honors cohort or successful in a regular cohort and looking to expand their options can’t be successful in a diploma program,” he said.

An icy reception from IB parents, but a quieter receptiveness

The proposed changes at GW have inflamed some parents of IB students who say the program’s selective admissions process is crucial to ensuring high standards.

“LEAVE IB ALONE. It is the reason we attend George,” IB parent Steve Weil wrote in an email to Johnson last month. “If you want to lose our support and our students, then dismantling a stellar program with stellar results is certainly one way to do that.”

Weil — and the many IB parents who spoke at the tense May meeting — also challenged Johnson’s communication about the planned changes, which would not affect any current students but would change the school for younger siblings and other future students. Johnson has pledged to convene a “think tank group” of parents, students and teachers to put meat on the bones of the revamped honors program plan beginning in the fall, but IB families say they aren’t optimistic about having an influence based on communication up to now.

“There has been zero transparency thus far and zero communication in the sense that it goes two ways,” Weil wrote. “We have heard you, but you have not heard us.”

Not everyone is distressed by the planned changes. At the May meeting, a group of IB and non-IB students cloistered themselves from the larger meeting of angry, shouting parents and came up with a plan that called for a more open honors program that would offer opportunities to more students without decreasing rigor. Graduating senior Lauren McGovern, a non-IB student who will attend the United States Military Academy at West Point this fall, said the changes would offer “optional integration,” because no student would be required to take the more rigorous course of study.

“You can’t force someone to go into a certain type of learning,” McGovern said. “But since you have a pre-IB program that isn’t an official IB program, they’re basically just the higher-level classes a freshman can take. And so why can’t the traditional (non-IB) students who want it have that opportunity?”

Wahtihdah Duffy, another graduating non-IB senior, said opening up the honors program to non-IB students would make the school’s culture healthier. As it stands now, she said, the school consists of “two gigantic cliques”: IB students, who she said were encouraged to think of themselves as elite, and students in the rest of the school. But there are high-performing students like her, she said, who deserve access to challenging classes.

“It’s just not right when you have to fight tooth and nail to get the best education. It’s kind of distressing,” Duffy said.

From beyond Denver, experiences that suggest a way forward

Administrators of IB programs elsewhere say opening up the programs to more students does not amount to dismantling them. Instead, they said increasing access boosts outcomes for students — but they said the roadbumps in Denver are to be expected, and can be countered only by open communication.

When South Side High School on Long Island placed all its students in IB English courses for 11th grade, the administration contacted the parents of every student who would be affected by the switch.

“We told them they would have support classes if they need it,” said Carol Burris, the school’s principal.

Principals of schools that have opened access to IB classes also said it was important to have a plan for ensuring that teachers are prepared to handle IB’s unique requirements.

“[IB] is not an Eastern mystical religion,” said James McSwain, principal of Lamar High School in Houston. “It is a combination of really good teaching science that we knew but don’t often use.”

Changing perceptions of IB as a “school within a school” for an elite group of students will be hard, McSwain warned. “It is very common to use IB programs in American schools as an exclusive gifted and talented program,” he said.

Fifteen years ago, McSwain spearheaded an effort to expand access to Lamar’s IB program — and encountered the same kind of community resistance that Johnson is meeting now.

“It was difficult,” he said. “There were a number of people that really didn’t believe that these kids could do that and that if you let those kids into these classes, it was going to dumb down the kids [already in the program].”

That didn’t happen, he said, even as enrollment in the IB program shifted so that more than half of students are black or Latino and about half come from low-income families. “I think we’ve pretty well blown that [fear] out of the water,” McSwain said. “The standards don’t change.”

Chalkbeat interviewed principals and IB coordinators at several schools, including Burris and McSwain, to understand their approach to opening access. Below are profiles of three schools and the approach they took to expanding access to IB.