Elite program in dispute

City College pushes its international course

alumni say end it

February 10, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

The program is producing students who go on to the nation's most prestigious colleges and universities - Harvard, Yale, Brown - and attracting middle-class families to send their children to a public city school.

Now one of Baltimore's flagship high schools, City College, is looking to expand its International Baccalaureate course of studies, even as City's alumni association recommends that it be done away with.

The alumni association fears that the program is devoting disproportionate resources to a relatively small number of students. City's IB classes have as few as eight students; regular college-prep classes can have 30 or more.

The association's board recently voted 14-1 to recommend that City replace IB with the traditional "A Course" for gifted students, a program still used at rival Polytechnic Institute, and expand its number of Advanced Placement courses. Though an IB diploma is recognized around the world, association members say that American colleges look just as favorably, if not more so, at AP classes on a student's transcript.

But the association has no control over how the school is run, and City administrators have disregarded its recommendation. Together with the new Harford Heights Middle School, City is applying to offer IB to students in grades six through 10, preparing them for the existing program when they are juniors and seniors. A west-side elementary school is also striving to offer IB.

City, a magnet school with stringent admissions requirements, is one of a handful of elite high schools widely considered bright spots in a troubled school system and closely monitored by alumni and the community at large.

At such a school, Principal Timothy Dawson says, people are always going to be resistant to change. He thinks an expanded IB program will help fulfill his vision of turning City - already extremely well-respected - into one of the premier high schools in the nation.

At the same time, he argues that with IB offered to younger kids, admission to City becomes accessible to a broader range of students, including many from disadvantaged backgrounds.

While Dawson is excited that the IB program is drawing students from private schools and the suburbs, he said, "This is a way to compete for inner-city black kids, many of them the first in their family to go to college. ... It has truly done remarkable things for this school."

Michael Hamilton, president of City's alumni association, said the association will continue to support the school regardless of how it proceeds with IB. But Neil Bernstein, the board member leading the anti-IB effort, was frustrated that the school was so quick to dismiss the association's recommendation. "We've not had the courtesy of a response," he said.

Founded in 1968, the Geneva-based International Baccalaureate Organization has programs in 1,923 schools in 124 countries, serving more than 500,000 students. It focuses largely on turning students into strong writers, thinkers and public speakers and giving them a global perspective.

"It's not about rote learning. It's not about learning a particular subject area because it's going to be on a test," said Mark Neustadt, whose daughter went to private school through eighth grade and is now in City's IB program. "It's much more about learning how to think through the material you're working with."

On a recent morning at City, the students in an IB advanced math class competed to see who could concoct the most interesting shape on a graphing calculator. In European history, they led a discussion about Zionism in the 1920s while the teacher moderated from the back of the class. In physics, they used their knowledge of momentum to move two office chairs the same distance.

Eight students are enrolled in the math class, but only six were present that day. Other classes were larger: nine in chemistry, 17 each in French and film, 21 in history and 22 in physics.

Hamilton, also president of the Baltimore Council of PTAs, said he would prefer to see class sizes more equal. "We want the best for all the kids in the school, not just a small percentage," he said.

Schools undergo a rigorous, multiyear application process to become IB-certified. Administrators and teachers must attend IB training sessions for several days at various sites around the country and the world. Dawson and others say the training benefits all students because the knowledge that teachers gain spills over into all their classes, not just the IB ones.

IB's "diploma programme," which has been at City since 1998, requires students to pass end-of-course exams, perform 150 hours of community service and write a 4,000-word research paper. Students can take IB courses without being on the diploma track, whose requirements are so rigorous that only a limited number of students meet them.

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