After three decades of housing two distinct programs and a year filled with concerns and compromise, George Washington High School, one of Denver’s comprehensive high schools, is preparing for its first school year as “One George.”
Starting in 2015-16, the school will house a redesigned academic program aimed at expanding access to the school’s International Baccalaureate Diploma Program, which over the years has been notably more academically successful — and notably less racially and socio-economically diverse — than the rest of the school.
The “One George” plan also aims to improve the quality and sequencing of the school’s Advanced Placement and standard classes.
Starting this fall, incoming freshmen will decide whether to enroll in the two-year IB Diploma Program in the spring before 11th grade. Until now, prospective students have applied for the school-designed pre-IB program as incoming freshmen, and only those who successfully passed pre-IB have been allowed to enter the Diploma Program.
“There was a sense that starting the cohort in 9th grade seemed to close the program for some kids. It felt like they were already behind, had already lost out,” said Melanie Bryant, who will direct the IB program at the school next year. “This gives them opportunities along the way.”
Whether the changes will genuinely alter the composition and quality of IB program or the academic performance of students throughout the school remains to be seen.
The school will have three “Patriot Pathways:” IB, Advanced Placement, and college preparatory programming. In freshman year, students interested in all three pathways will be able to take a mix of classes that are designated as pre-IB, honors, and standard.
The new flexibility in 9th and 10th grade programs is aimed at broadening the path to IB. But students vying for the IB diploma are still being strongly encouraged to take pre-IB and honors classes.
The IB program itself remains exclusively a diploma program, which means students must enroll in an entire suite of IB courses junior and senior years and can’t earn certificates for individual IB classes. Many high schools across the country allow students to pursue individual IB course certificates.
Compromise seemed unlikely
That a compromise that genuinely altered the selective programs would be reached at all seemed unlikely less than a year ago. When district officials and the school’s then-principal Micheal Johnson announced plans to open up access to IB last spring, alumni, parents, and community members were furious. They said DPS wasn’t listening to community concerns.
But after a series of meetings and planning sessions throughout the summer, fall and winter, passions have cooled, and the school is moving forward with plans for a redesigned program with cautious optimism.
“Obviously it was rocky. And I wish it hadn’t been,” said DPS board member Mike Johnson. “But, while we haven’t docked the ship yet, we’ve kept it from sinking.”
The “docking” has been accompanied by some significant changes in personnel. Former IB Director Suzanne Geimer, who opposed a series of district attempts to open up the IB program over the years, is retiring after more than 30 years. A number of teachers have left the school. Bryant, a former IB teacher and district peer observer, is currently acting as co-director and will take the reins this summer.
Jose Martinez, brought in as an interim principal for the 2014-15 school year after Johnson was removed, will remain in his post next year. Many parents, students, and staff credit Martinez with bringing much-needed stability to the school after a rocky introduction of the plans for change.
Parents’ fears have not been entirely ameliorated. “I remain troubled by a certain view coming from the DPS administration that does not acknowledge the success of the IB program,” said GW alumnus and parent Steve Weil. Weil said he is concerned that the district is not committed to its selective programs, which he said are necessary to meet the needs of some students.
But, Weil said, “after everyone calmed down, I think we realized there was a cultural divide that needed to be addressed at GW. The other fact was, you have the IB program, which is excellent and doing well. Why not try to expand it? I think it’s a brilliant compromise.”
Over the course of the fall and winter, task forces of staff and community organized by school and district leadership developed proposals for school culture, implementing the DPS’s teacher leadership program, the three pathways, and student-centered learning.
How it will work
A committee that consisted mostly of teachers developed a plan to address the main logistical challenge: How students can move through 9th and 10th grade classes in different ways to be prepared for IB, Advanced Placement, or college preparatory programming. [Read the One George Action Plan released in January to see pathways and requirements.]
Next year’s freshmen will start school in August with a new orientation program, during which they’ll consider which of the three pathways they’re interested in following. The school is also starting an advisory program that will connect students with a teacher with whom they will regularly consult about their academic and personal goals.
Students will still have to qualify academically to enroll in the IB program as juniors by having on-grade-level standardized test scores and above-average grades.
But for the first time, students can technically take a mix of classes before then and still be considered for IB. Non-GW students will also be considered for admission at the end of their 10th grade year.
A document outlining the changes at the school says that “our intention is to look holistically at each student’s preparation for success.” But, it says, “we will not enroll students in Honors/PB [Pre-IB] courses who, in considering the totality of the qualifications above, are unprepared to be successful.”
Teacher Michelle Rosen, who teaches both pre-IB and standard classes, said teachers had been concerned about the changes when they were first proposed. “It was hard to take it all in, and no one wants those programs to be lost.”
But Rosen said she is optimistic about the bridging effect of the changes. “Students in all my classes are phenomenal, and I want them to talk to each other.”
Leveling the playing field
Principal Martinez said by creating chances for students who might not previously have opted into or qualified for the full pre-IB program to take some Pre-IB classes in 9th and 10th grades, “it creates that ability for someone to experience what it’s like to be in what’s typically been a program that’s not for me.”
“We’re looking for ways to level the playing field for our students,” he said. “A person’s ability to move about a community has an impact, poverty has an impact, race has an impact.” George Washington’s IB program was noted in a report for this fall for its success in sending low-income students to college.
Martinez said the school is also investing in professional development for all its teachers and is focusing on making sure that students who are not in IB are also getting a quality education. “It’s clear we need to improve the quality of instruction.”
The school is requesting funds to train its teachers in AP and IB. It also plans to standardize syllabi and curriculum in its AP and college preparatory classes to make sure that they’re solid and consistent.
Martinez said bolstering the quality of those programs will also allow students who decide IB is not their path to feel confident in their academic future.
Martinez said he has also been focused on building a school culture that includes all students this year, by creating events where all students interact.
“In this school for probably over a decade, we haven’t really attended to school culture,” Martinez said. “We weren’t talking about ethnicity, race, class, about what we do in a comprehensive high school with a diverse population to make everyone feel welcome.”
The One George Action Plan includes recommendations to have events that recognize student and staff accomplishments and “break down barriers” between students.
This year’s school choice application in Denver reflected the upcoming changes: While the application previously differentiated between IB and non-IB, this year students could only select George Washington.
Some parents and school staff feared the application would lead some people to believe that the IB program no longer exists.
But numbers from this year’s round of school choice don’t show a dramatic decline. In 2014-15, 316 students were accepted into the regular program and 151 to the IB program. In 2015-16, 455 students applied for the school’s freshmen class.
It remains to be seen just how many students enroll in each of the three pathways. The school reached out to students individually to gauge whether they were interested in IB in order to help plan for the fall.
Martinez said it is important that students be able to choose their desired program and that all of the school’s classes be of high quality. “This schedule is built as a choice of studies. We don’t track students and say you’re relegated to this pathway. We say, what would you like to study?”