Senn High senior Shrda Shrestha is attending her neighborhood high school in Edgewater against pretty much everybody’s advice.
“When I first started looking at high schools, people were usually like, ‘It’s selective enrollment or nothing,’” said Shrestha. “Then I found out about IB.”
IB, or International Baccalaureate, is the rigorous curriculum that Chicago Public Schools hopes will improve the health of its neighborhood schools, both by improving academic outcomes and influencing the decisions of top students such as Shrestha.
The idea is that IB’s rigorous academics will both improve outcomes for low-income and black and Latino students, and also keep middle- and upper-income families from skipping on out on neighborhood schools, either in favor of one of Chicago’s 11 elite, selective-enrollment high schools or more drastic options such as private school or a move to the suburbs.
There are reasons for optimism. First, Chicago district students who complete the full IB curriculum are 40 percent more likely to attend college than a matched group of non-IB students, and also more likely to persist in college, according to a 2012 report by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.
That’s especially encouraging because the city’s IB students closely mirror the overall district population — mostly low-income, and mostly Latino and African-American — compared with the whiter and wealthier student populations at selective-enrollment schools.
Second, IB is helping neighborhood schools make inroads with top students, as 23 percent of kids who were admitted both to IB and selective-enrollment schools last year chose IB, according to district data — music to the ears of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
IB is “becoming a true qualitative choice and competitor to the selective-enrollment schools,” Emanuel told Chalkbeat. (Read our full interview with Emanuel and Chicago schools chief Janice Jackson here.)
Indeed, IB’s success is a potential silver lining for Emanuel, who is trying to recalibrate an education legacy marked by declining enrollment and punctuated by the closing of 50 schools in 2013.
Chicago’s IB push already has survived two mayors and nine school chiefs, likely because it’s working—and indeed, the Geneva, Switzerland-based IB holds up its results in Chicago as an example of the curriculum’s potential to transform schools worldwide. Administrators here see it not just as a sell to parents but also a way to connect students and teachers around one consistent curriculum.
It’s clear that the program is different from traditional coursework, both in its rigor and its cross-disciplinary approach.
IB is “about expanding your knowledge in all subjects and then seeing that they all connect somehow,” says Senn High’s Shrestha.
From elite international schools to Chicago
The International Baccalaureate Organization developed its initial curriculum 50 years ago with the idea that the children of British diplomats living abroad could point to it as a reliable, standardized credential when applying to Cambridge and Oxford. Plenty of elite boarding schools use IB, but there’s been a dramatic shift in IB’s clientele, to the point that the organization’s biggest North American customer is Chicago Public Schools, which supports IB programming in 59 schools.
IB’s founders “would never have imagined in their wildest dreams that the people that benefit most from it seem to be kids in urban schools,” said Paul Campbell, the organization’s head of regional development in the Americas.
Now, as Chicago signals that IB is the centerpiece of its efforts to revitalize neighborhood schools, other urban districts around the country are following suit — Los Angeles, Dallas, and Milwaukee each offer IB at a handful of schools, for example. That means taking up the challenge of preparing students for a demanding curriculum.
The cornerstone of the International Baccalaureate curriculum is its Diploma Program, the intensive two-year curriculum for 11th and 12th graders. These students take seven college-level courses that include specialized exams graded by IBO staffers — the externally evaluated tests, which cost up to $291 per student, are one of the most significant costs associated with IB.
The full Diploma Program courseload is notoriously difficult, to the point where “it’s a professional joke among DP advisers that they are also on-the-ground counselors for kids struggling with the courseload,” said Charles Tocci, an education professor at Loyola University. “It’s intense and it’s heavy duty.”
The Diploma Program isn’t right for every student, even the brightest ones. Students who play sports or hold a job can find the Diploma Program to be too much—in fact, the daughter of IB’s Campbell chose not to pursue the Diploma Program because she was also in her school’s orchestra.
Students who pursue the program anyway do so while counting the cost.
“I don’t sleep—that’s how I do it,” said Senn senior Lynn Trieu, who works part-time at a sushi restaurant in addition to her studies. Yet Trieu also says she has no regrets. “It’s a little harder, I can see that, but it’s also something I like because it’s challenging me.”
Not every IB student needs to sign up for the heavy-duty experience. Statistically, the program’s strong postsecondary outcomes are achieved not only by students who pass the tests and earn IB’s prestigious diploma (which is separate from a school diploma), but also to students who complete the program and graduate but don’t earn the IB Diploma. And Chicago leaders say that taking even a couple of IB-level courses enhances students’ college readiness.
Building an IB pipeline
One of the main challenges for IB in Chicago is that few students arrive in 11th grade equipped to thrive in IB’s signature, two-year Diploma Program. Even when the transition starts earlier, it can still be jarring.
Fiske Elementary in Woodlawn, for example, was certified earlier this year to offer IB’s Middle Years Program, which begins in sixth grade. Fiske Principal Cynthia Miller was immediately convinced it wasn’t enough.
“My children from pre-K to fifth grade are not exposed to that type of rigor, so it makes us work even harder to try to get them caught up,” said Miller.
Now Miller is getting her wish as part of Chicago’s latest expansion of its big bet on IB — the school will add IB’s Primary Years Program as part of a district initiative announced last month to create a citywide network of elementary and high schools.
The expanded IB curriculum not only acclimates students to the program’s intensiveness, but also starts them on a track that’s designed to improve the odds of completing the challenging diploma program.
At Senn High, for example, sophomore English students in the middle-years program spent last week comparing the rhetorical strategies employed in speeches by Michelle Obama and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The exercise serves as a practice run for an assignment that students will be given during the diploma program.
“Our department has done a lot of work in these lower grades to get students ready for [the diploma program],” says Senn teacher Erin Riordan. “It’s useful and it’s good for us to work toward that.”
Chicago’s investment in IB’s early grades programming seems to be paying off as the number of students entering the diploma program has doubled in five years, from an average of 450 from 2012-15 to 911 last school year. (Citywide, there are 16,000 students in IB programs, but that figure includes elementary and middle programs.)
Even though it’s on the upswing, the 911 diploma-seeking high schoolers pales when compared with about 14,500 in the city’s selective-enrollment high schools.
Still, administrators say that IB’s expansion into Chicago elementary schools is useful because it funnels more students to the Diploma Program. That is a primary goal, but educators say IB’s lower-years programming, which includes extensive teacher training, is paying dividends beyond the students it sends to the Diploma Program.
“You’re creating the same expectations amongst all classrooms at a grade level,” says Lori Zaimi, principal of Peirce Elementary in Edgewater — Senn High’s IB feeder school. Without IB, “often you’ll see teachers dabbling in different training opportunities and there’s no consistency across the grade level. Now everybody’s teaching the same unit, and teachers are talking the same language, including the emphasis on things like inquiry and a global context.”
IB also emphasizes continuity by employing a handful of themes that are consistent from year to year such as “how we express ourselves,” “how the world works,” and “sharing the planet.”
Teachers implementing IB have also found the curriculum useful beyond preparing students for the Diploma Program. When Senn High added a Middle Years Program in 2013, program Director David Gregg quickly concluded “it wasn’t inherently honors level — it was really just best practices that was engaging and would help students kind of build skills and connect to their worlds.”
In response, Senn then pushed to make IB’s ninth- and 10th-grade programming the standard throughout their building, even for students who aren’t planning to enter the Diploma Program.
Compared with other premium curricular options such as the Advanced Placement courses supported by the College Board, IB’s offerings are notable for their emphasis on “sustained inquiry around topics,” said Jal Mehta, a Harvard education professor and coauthor of an upcoming book that examines attempts to remake American high schools, including IB.
Mehta said teachers “still experience the AP curriculum as essentially like racing through lots of topics fairly quickly, without opportunities for an in-depth exploration. On the whole, I think IB does a much better job of balancing breadth and depth.”
There are no externally moderated tests that measure effectiveness of the IB elementary and middle-year programs.
Becoming an IB school takes years to apply, train teachers and often rewrite the school’s mission statement to ensure that it encompasses IB’s desired level of rigor.
Every certified elementary school must teach only IB’s program, rather than offering it as one track among several. Middle year programs don’t have that restriction, but IB-only curriculum — which Chicago schools officials refer to as “wall-to-wall IB” — is the strong preference of the international organization behind the curriculum.
A 40-year rollout aimed at access
From the beginning, Chicago’s rolled out IB as a neighborhood-school alternative to the district’s sought-after test-in high schools. Those selective schools, while high-performing, have traditionally skewed whiter and wealthier than the district’s overall student population—and their limited number of seats means that few students have access.
At Chicago’s IB high schools, in contrast, three-quarters of students in the Diploma Program are African-American or Latino, according to the University of Chicago study. “Equity has been baked into the process for IB expansion at every step,” says Kyle Westbrook, executive director of the nonprofit Partnership for College Completion and formerly the executive director of Chicago schools’ Magnet, Gifted and IB programs.
One reason for that is the federal grants that have funded much of Chicago’s IB expansion are specifically geared toward desegregation. In 1980, when Lincoln Park High became the first Chicago high school to offer IB’s Diploma Program, the school was largely African-American and Latino, and IB was intended to diversify the student body by drawing in more white students from the then-gentrifying neighborhood.
(Lincoln Park looks very different now, whiter and wealthier, and in fact its IB program was left off the University of Chicago study because it differed from the city’s other IB high schools both in demographic composition and in its highly selective admissions process.)
The early anecdotal success of Lincoln Park’s IB graduates led then schools-chief Paul Vallas to expand IB in the 1998, adding Diploma Programs in neighborhood high schools around the city: Amundsen and Senn to the north; Prosser, Steinmetz and Taft to the northwest; Clark to the west; Curie, Hubbard and Kelly to the southwest; and Bronzeville and Hyde Park to the South.
A 2012 expansion spearheaded by Emanuel increased the number of Chicago high schools offering the Diploma Program (there are now 25), but focused on adding middle-school programs to elementary schools to better prepare students for entering the Diploma Program. But IB seats remain unevenly distributed across the city, despite the program’s aim. A regional report released by the district in August showed that the city’s West Side offers very few IB seats — a shortage made more glaring when Clark High in Austin shuttered its IB program in 2011.
One reason for the unevenness is school size. Clark, for example, has just over 500 students, whereas most IB high schools have more than 1,000. “The West Side of Chicago is still an area where there’s an opportunity, but there’s a challenge in terms of the numbers, because to really to make it cost effective, schools have to really be of a certain size,” said Westbrook.
Despite those regional gaps, the IB initiative is largely fulfilling its mission to bring a premium offering to neighborhood schools.
Latino students make up the largest single ethnic group within IB, and their experience within the program is different than that of African-Americans. Students from both groups enroll in ninth-grade IB classes in similar numbers, but Latinos are far more likely to enter the Diploma Program in 11th grade, according to the 2012 study.
One reason could be affinity with the curriculum: A 2015 doctoral dissertation by Chicago schools educator Sandra Arreguín found that Latino students were especially drawn to IB’s international focus. And Latino students are likely to have a leg up when it comes to IB’s emphasis on learning multiple languages. Senn High even offers a special track with a bilingual version of the IB Diploma.
“It helps close the achievement gap,” said IBO’s Campbell. “Instead of taking the advantage that these kids have and trying to put it aside, we take it and build on it.”
Can it last?
The addition of more early-years programs and establishment of IB feeder-school relationships like the one between Senn and Peirce open the door for parents to start their 3-year-old children on an IB track in hopes that — without leaving their neighborhood schools — the children will be prepared to thrive in a Diploma Program when they reach their junior year.
But that assumes that IB will still be around, which is hardly a given considering the program’s expense and the pending change in mayoral administration. Emanuel, an IB advocate, announced last month he won’t seek re-election. IB schools pay $11,650 each year to offer the Diploma Program, and slightly less to offer the Middle Years and Early Years Programs. That’s separate from the added faculty and faculty-training costs associated with IB, as well as the costs associated with IB testing.
“I’ve felt skeptical about IB’s long-term viability, because it’s expensive,” said Loyola’s Tocci. “When the district’s budgets were tight a few years ago, I expected IB would go on chopping block.”
Yet IB has plenty working in its favor, too. For one, educators such as Mehta say that developing an alternative, premium curriculum in house would likely be at least as expensive, and probably less effective. And the program has already survived several different administrations within Chicago schools, as well as two mayors.
“IB has been one of the only things that’s stuck around and withstood [the changes],” said Westbrook. “It would be hard for me to imagine the district unwinding that.”