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International Baccalaureate changes outlook for Seattle school

June 25, 2015 at 6:30 PM EDT
The International Baccalaureate program, once thought of as a college preparatory curriculum exclusively for the rich, may also help students at struggling schools. The NewsHour’s April Brown explores how the program has transformed one high school in Seattle.

GWEN IFILL: Now: how a college prep program helped turn around a failing city school, and the lessons that may offer.

Since 1971, the International Baccalaureate program has been used in both public and private schools across the nation. Once considered solely for the elite, the two-year curriculum is considered part of a prescription for improving high school education.

The NewsHour’s April Brown has that story from Seattle, part of our American Graduate series, a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

WOMAN: Maybe you’re going to learn something about a profession where it’s not going to be exactly what you thought.

APRIL BROWN: For many seniors like Danny Segi at Seattle’s Rainier Beach High School, the journey toward graduation has been a long one. He’s overcome tough odds at a school in one of the city’s most violent neighborhoods.

Tell me what it was like when you got here four years ago. What was the atmosphere?

DANNY SEGI, Rainier Beach High School Student: So, it was really a wild environment. You see students in the hallway just walking around. You see a lot of students over here just drinking alcohol, smoking weed. A lot of them smoked cigarettes. And you could just see it being open around the school. You could just smell it. You could just see it on their faces.

APRIL BROWN: Danny admits he initially ran in that crowd as well, and he wasn’t alone. In 2011, only about half of students here were graduating on time, and the city was threatening to close the school.

Today, Rainier Beach is dramatically different. Nearly 80 percent of students are now graduating on time and enrollment has nearly doubled.

WOMAN: It’s a beautiful, beautiful afternoon. Thanks for spending a couple of hours with us here.

APRIL BROWN: This turnaround is attributed to an ambitious and costly plan hatched by parents and community leaders, to make Rainier Beach an International Baccalaureate school, offering a globally recognized college preparatory curriculum.

NARRATOR: The International Baccalaureate is international education.

APRIL BROWN: The International Baccalaureate, or I.B., program has been around for more than 45 years, and early on was very popular for the children of diplomats.

COLIN PIERCE, International Baccalaureate Coordination, Rainier Beach High School: The children of the affluent, you know, the students who were expected to be leaving, were given this education where they are allowed to explore, their individual thoughts are valued, you know, that they are treated as if the decisions they make are informed by something special in them.

APRIL BROWN: Colin Pierce is the I.B. coordinator at Rainier Beach and helped bring that attitude toward learning to the school as it went through the three-year certification process.

COLIN PIERCE: A curriculum where students are expected to lead is absolutely the curriculum we want for all students.

APRIL BROWN: With a federal school improvement grant of more than $3.5 million and additional state funding, Rainier Beach hired new staff and retrained teachers.

It also began offering a more rigorous course load, focusing heavily on critical thinking and problem-solving, to develop young adults who can compete and succeed in a global economy. But the staff knew this turnaround plan wouldn’t work without buy-in from students.

COLIN PIERCE: It’s redefining how we set and support our expectations. And there is a belief element of it. These kids are so smart. And a student can read you if you do not think that they can do something. They will perform to your expectations.

APRIL BROWN: Expectations for I.B. students are high, similar to the more well-known Advanced Placement program, and it too also offers an opportunity to earn college credit. In order to earn a full I.B. diploma, students must pass tests in six subject areas, including language and literature, science, math and the arts.

Students are also required to write a 4,000-word research essay, and study the nature of knowledge, how we know what we claim to know.

COLIN PIERCE: Approaching the world in the way that we have been approaching it, is this worth our time? Is this — or is it a waste of time?

APRIL BROWN: Pursuing a full I.B. diploma usually means several hours of homework a night. And Rainier Beach principal Dwane Chappelle realized that kind of commitment and focus wasn’t realistic for many of his 600 students. But he wanted at least part of the program to be mandatory.

DWANE CHAPPELLE, Principal, Rainier Beach High School: Some students who at first were saying, you know, this isn’t for kids of color, these are for the rich students. That’s an A.P. program. And so, you know, just hearing that voice right there from a young person just basically made our staff say, you know what, we know that they can do it.

And that’s where we are right now, where every kid that is a junior or senior, they have to take at least one I.B. class.

APRIL BROWN: Since Rainier Beach adopted I.B., the makeup of the student body hasn’t changed much. Roughly 95 percent are minorities. But many subjects are different. Foreign language offerings now include Mandarin.

And there is more skill-based instruction too, like this class that partners with Cisco and teaches students to build and fix computers, cell phones and other mobile devices.

IFRAH ABSHIR, Rainier Beach High School Student: And not just more knowledge, but like how to understand knowledge as well.

APRIL BROWN: At the heart of the program, though, is an aim to help students, like junior Ifrah Abshir, who is on track to complete the full diploma, recognize the world beyond high school. Ifrah plans to become a doctor, but the curriculum has sparked another interest that she also hopes to pursue.

IFRAH ABSHIR: Syria is having a crisis. I will go to Syria, and I will work with their, like, Doctors Without Borders type of thing. A big part of me also wants to be, like, an activist, like, protest for basic rights, like human rights and, like, black lives matter and, like, Muslims lives matter.

APRIL BROWN: Ifrah is one of 10 kids from a family that immigrated from Somalia. Her mother, Hamdi Barre, says the program has been a blessing, both for the fact that it is free, but also because students become more serious about their studies.

HAMDI BARRE, Mother of Ifrah Abshir (through interpreter): Ifrah is my oldest daughter. And I have always advised her to become somebody and to help others. And she listened. She’s a good daughter, and I hope she succeeds and reaches her dreams.

APRIL BROWN: While Ifrah seems to be on the road to success, steep challenges remain at Rainier Beach. Funding for the program only goes through 2017, and the cost of one I.B. test alone is more than $100, though, right now, those fees are covered by grants.

And some parents, like LaCretiah Claytor, who helped bring the program into the school, have other concerns.

LACRETIAH CLAYTOR, Parent: We don’t have enough African-Americans in the I.B. program, the full I.B. program. Certainly, some are taking some classes. And, yay, thankfully, they are at least brave enough to attempt one or two classes. We need increase in the Latino community, Hispanic community, the Pacific Islander community, the Native community. We need those numbers to increase.

APRIL BROWN: Of the 19 students who originally began working toward a full I.B. diploma, only seven were on track to earn one on graduation day. Results won’t be known until July, but I.B. coordinator Colin Pierce says that attrition rate is typical for a first cohort, and he says 21 juniors are currently on track to complete it next year.

He admits, though, these changes have not been easy.

COLIN PIERCE: All of our students have had difficulty. All of our students have struggled with this. Our teachers have struggled with this.

And I think that’s part of the value of it, because they are not struggling alone. They are struggling with a lot of support. They are struggling with people who believe they are going to make it to the other side.

APRIL BROWN: Across the nation, the I.B. program is now in more than 1,600 schools, many in urban districts. Rainier Beach pursued the program after seeing the results of a report studying graduates of 13 inner-city Chicago schools that adopted I.B.

It found they were more likely to attend college and stay there in the first two years. While this Seattle school is working towards those outcomes too, I.B. has already done a lot to change its culture and reputation.

STUDENT: Better books, better textbooks, history books and stuff like that, and felt like an actual, you know, good, outstanding high school.

APRIL BROWN: Senior Dajaun Rose was both stabbed and shot in his first two years at Rainier Beach, but he was able to stay on track through it all and recently graduated with his senior class.

DAJAUN ROSE: I feel just amazing. I feel like there is nothing I can’t overcome.

APRIL BROWN: As for Danny Segi, he eventually plans to go to a university in New Zealand and hopes to one day become a teacher. He credits both Pierce, and the I.B. Program, for helping him get to graduation.

DANNY SEGI: Mr. Pierce took that initiative and really told us, you know, this is — I could see you doing this. You know, this is who you are going to be. You know, I see you being this. And it really just gave us motivation, you know?

APRIL BROWN: Rainier Beach is currently asking the state for an additional $250,000 to keep the program going. And parents and community leaders have also started a foundation to support it beyond 2017.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m April Brown in Seattle.