Educators give baccalaureate program a look

Superintendent leads tour of Virginia school

`Feeling of accomplishment'

Smith likes its rigorous approach to education

Anne Arundel

January 30, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

RESTON, Va. - In a bid to win support for his International Baccalaureate initiative, Anne Arundel County Superintendent Eric J. Smith led a group of educators, school board members and parents to a Fairfax County, Va., school yesterday to see the rigorous academic program in action.

The morning bus trip to South Lakes High in Reston was the second such visit this month. A few weeks ago, Smith led a tour of Richard Montgomery High, a magnet school in Rockville that uses the Swiss-based program.

In the past, the superintendent has referred to high test scores and academic programs such as International Baccalaureate in larger and wealthier Montgomery and Fairfax counties as examples for Anne Arundel County.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Sun incorrectly characterized how high school coursework under the International Baccalaureate program is treated by colleges. Many universities in the United States grant some form of advanced standing to IB students. The Sun regrets the error.

Smith said he intends to ask the school board next week to vote on whether he should install the program at Old Mill and Annapolis high schools, now that many board members have visited an IB school.

Administrators at South Lakes said students who have received International Baccalaureate diplomas since the program began there three years ago have gone on to successful college careers.

"A lot of the skills they get in IB - thinking, writing, interpretative, creative skills - are transferable to whatever they're going to do in the future," said Principal Realista Rodriguez. She said such skills aren't stressed as much in other challenging academic curricula, such as Advanced Placement.

The IB diploma, accepted by universities in more than 110 countries, is granted after students complete required courses and assessments in six subject areas during their junior and senior years. Students must fulfill their counties' graduation requirements. School systems also may offer pre-IB curricula for grades nine and 10, and for the middle and elementary school years.

Unlike the Advanced Placement program, in which students receive college credits if they pass end-of-year exams, IB coursework does not transfer to college. But IB supporters say students gain the ability to think critically and to express themselves orally and in writing.

Math classes require students to keep notebooks in which they solve problems and write essays about the concepts involved.

Students also take a "theory of knowledge" class that encourages them to appreciate cultural perspectives. At the end of their senior year, each student writes a 4,000-word "extended essay" on a topic of his or her choice.

"For students who do it right, [the essay] can be a highlight of high school," said Erin Albright, an IB coordinator for Annandale High, another of the eight Fairfax County schools using the program. "It gives them such a feeling of accomplishment."

Students take challenging exams in each course, some graded by classroom teachers and others sent to IB examiners around the world. In Pat Zylka's IB English class yesterday afternoon, the room was abuzz as students practiced in small groups for oral exams.

When they take the exams next week, they will be given a passage from one of three texts they have studied this year - a Thomas Hardy novel and two Shakespeare plays - and a few minutes to take notes and organize their thoughts. They then will have to present an analysis of the excerpt.

Student Brian Purchase, who moved to the United States from England several years ago, said he is nervous about the oral exam. He's counting on doing well in his courses so that he can get the IB diploma and get into college in his native country.

Purchase said the 30 or so students at South Lakes who are trying to earn IB diplomas must make many sacrifices to keep up with the course work, such as forgoing some extracurricular activities or studying while their friends enjoy themselves.

"They think I'm completely and utterly mad," Purchase said of some of his friends. But the 12th-grader said he is well-prepared for college and will be able to relax next year.

Board member Anthony Spencer said after the school visit that he is sold on the concept. "I see it expanding people's understanding about the world, beyond this country, and encouraging them to think globally," he said.

Other board members wonder whether the program allows students the flexibility to take nonacademic courses.

Board member Paul Rudolph asked students what electives they chose. Their answers included computer science and journalism. And he visited an art class to put his mind at ease about electives.

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