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Going global to meet a college dream


International Baccalaureate graduate Darrell Bennett is completing his first year at Harvard Law School. (Courtesy of Christopher Clark)

Darrell Bennett was an eighth grader in Newport News, Va., when he stumbled on something he had no idea existed: the International Baccalaureate high school program.

“There’s so much more out there to be had,” Bennett recalled thinking at the time. His mother had obtained a nursing degree as an adult, but no one in his family had ever gone to college directly from high school.

That changed in 2003 when Bennett earned his International Baccalaureate Diploma at Warwick High School in Newport News. Now 22, and in his first year of Harvard Law School, Bennett is a firm believer that the IB helped change the course of his life.

A program that is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the International Baccalaureate has come a long way from its beginnings at the International School of Geneva, in Switzerland. In 1968, a group of teachers helped develop a curriculum for a high school diploma that would be recognized by universities worldwide, to meet the needs of children whose families had moved to foreign countries.

The IB is now offered by 2,294 schools in 127 different countries, with a curriculum that extends to children ages 3 through 16. Today, though, students in IB programs, particularly in the United States, are far less likely to be globetrotters attending private schools like the United Nations International School in New York City. Instead, an increasingly large number of them are public school students throughout the United States, most of whom never dreamed of having an international education, did not grow up speaking a second language, with scarce means to travel outside the country. Of the 873 schools that offer the IB program in the United States, 92 percent are public schools.

“It’s an absolutely superb program," said Marlyn McGrath, director of admissions at Harvard College. While she said she did not have firm data, she said the number of Harvard applicants graduating from IB programs has increased significantly in the past few years.

The IB has been doubling in enrollment every five years, and now is aiming to increase access for students regardless of their circumstances.

“We feel this is a natural growth for the program,” said Beth Brock, the head of research, development and communications in the IB Regional Office for North America and the Caribbean, based in New York. Brock is helping to implement a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to bring the program to younger grades in schools that are eligible for Title I assistance. Title I schools are eligible for government aid because they enroll a large number of poor students, typically measured by whether they qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch.

By bringing the IB to schools serving lower income populations, the program “offers students who really need it an international aspect, a more global perspective, [and] also prepares them for success in college,” Brock said.

payment goes to the International Baccalaureate Organization, which is the umbrella non-profit, still based in Geneva, that oversees the admnistration of the program worlwide. the school gets the right to offer the program. It's called an authorization fee. The authorization process can take 2 years or more, and includes feasibility studies, schools visits by the IB,

It costs $8,800 to become an IB certified school--the money covers an authorization process that can take two years or more--and a similar amount each year to remain in the high school diploma program. In the diploma program, there is an examination fee of approximately $80 for each student in each subject. Some public schools receive enough funding from their districts to cover all the IB costs, while others charge students some of the fees. Last year the IB Bursary Fund was launched to provide temporary assistance to schools experiencing financial difficulty, and IB schools associations lobby at the state and federal levels for funding.

The diploma program, offered to high school juniors and seniors, requires students to write several lengthy papers, to perform community service, and to take a multidisciplinary class called Theory of Knowledge. Diploma students must take at least one foreign language, and can choose from electives including economics, psychology and computer science.

Unlike theme-based schools that have appeared around the country, the IB does not emphasize certain subjects over others. “It not like a criminology magnet school, or like if you are in a science magnet, or a marine biology magnet school,” said Janice Finney, director of admissions at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fla. ‘The IB program is going to cover all spectrums. You take math, the social sciences, and you take them year after year until you graduate.’

Although in some IB schools every student is enrolled in the diploma program, in many public schools only a fraction of students take the IB. In some cases, any student can sign up for the IB, but some schools have a selective application process. The IB is in the process of building a database to track its alumni beyond high school, to document where they go to college, how well they do compared to their non-IB peers, and how prepared they feel coming out of the diploma program.

“It’s the global perspective of the IB which I see lacking in national programs,” said Lindsey Nicolai, a public school senior in the IB diploma program at Warwick High School. “In English class, we ... look at Russian literature classics, and in history, we look at World War II from a European, or Asia perspective, or the colonized people in Africa,” said Nicolai, who wants to major in international relations.

“The IB students are getting something the other students are not getting," added Al Penna, principal of Binghamton High School in Binghamton, N.Y., a Title I school where any student can enroll in the IB diploma program. Unlike their non-IB peers, students are immersed in a liberal arts curriculum that emphasizes writing and interdisciplinary thinking, and “is designed to be inclusive of the knowledge, tradition, [and] customs of other nations,” said Penna.

Graduates also benefit from its national reputation. For example, an inner-city high school student in Florida applying to a university in California may have a difficult time if admissions officials are unfamiliar with the high school, Finney said. But if the student is enrolled in the high school’s IB program, the university “knows the curriculum,” she said.

At Florida State and other Florida universities, entering students with an IB diploma receive a minimum of 30 credit hours or one year of college work.

“Even as a kid, before I got out of my state, I had wanted to see the world, and the IB was the beginning of the realization of that,” said Bennett, who wants to pursue a career in international law. Bennett’s first time abroad was in the ninth grade, on a trip to Europe with his IB German teacher. “The IB did a tremendous job with helping me shape my worldview,” he said.