the big picture

Denver IB changes — and pushback — mirror other cities’

PHOTO: Alan Gottlieb
Graduating George Washington High School seniors Wahtihdah Duffy and Lauren McGovern

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.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.