( Editor’s Note: This is Part One of a two-part series examining the International Baccalaureate program in the Coeur d’Alene School District.)
To get accepted at a top-tier college, Nicholas Bell knows good grades are not enough.
A stellar scholastic record will certainly help the Lake City High School student when it comes time to send out college applications, but in order to stand apart from the competition, he’s going to need more than straight A’s in his academic portfolio.
So Bell, who will be a junior at Lake City next fall, decided to opt for the rigorous coursework provided in the school’s International Baccalaureate program, a highly touted advanced learning program that emphasizes classroom dialogue, self-inquiry, intercultural understanding and global education. Some students, such as Bell, work toward a degree in the program during their junior and senior years, through six areas of study, though any student can take an IB class without going for the diploma.
An IB diploma, Bell believes, will give him an admissions advantage in applying to any number of prestigious institutions across the country.
“It opens a lot of doors that way,” said Bell, who has completed six IB classes. “I don’t know what I really want to do, so the fact that if you do go the full route and get the diploma, it’s going to allow you to get into pretty much whatever school you want to go to.”
However, Bell and the rest of his IB classmates have found themselves in the midst of a contentious debate swirling around the Coeur d’Alene School District’s IB programs and whether the programs contain a political bias. Having ignited a flurry of controversy in recent months, the subject has played out in front of school board meetings and spilled over into public forums and online comment sections, pitting the school board, community members and many parents of children in the school district who support the programs against a relatively small yet vocal group of community members and parents of children who oppose IB in all its forms.
Founded in Geneva, Switzerland in 1968 as a nonprofit educational foundation to encourage internationally mobile students in preparing for university, the IB organization has grown into three separate programs for students age 3 to 19. IB programs are now offered at 2,980 schools in 139 countries to more than 830,000 students.
IB member schools pay an annual fee of several thousand dollars, with reduced rates for districts that offer two or more IB programs. Over the last seven years, the Coeur d’Alene School District has spent $1.3 million on the programs, the bulk of which was spent putting the programs in place. At a recent school board meeting, it was estimated that next year’s cost for the IB program at Lake City High School will be roughly $25,000, which will be covered through the school levy approved by voters in 2009.
At Hayden Meadows, the cost of the primary years program is expected to be between $10,000 and $12,000, which includes the $7,200 annual enrollment fee.
Prior to the program’s inception in the Coeur d’Alene School District four years ago, a team of then-school district officials sought out an advanced learning program to bring to North Idaho. The team visited high schools in South Carolina and Montana to see IB in action, and the school district staff came away impressed by what they saw, according to Lake City High School’s outgoing Principal John Brumley.
“It’s widely accepted, along with (Advanced Placement), as the advanced curriculum in American high schools,” Brumley said. “It’s 30 years old, it’s all across the country and it’s in over 700 high schools, so the benefits are well established and decades old.”
Part of ‘schools of choice’ initiative
The IB and AP programs are part of the district’s “schools of choice,” an initiative to provide options for parents of children who want to focus on unique areas of study. Through the AP program, students can also earn college-level credits for participating universities through comprehensive end-of-the-year examinations. The seven schools of choice, or magnet schools as they are known, include Sorenson, Ramsey and Hayden Meadows elementary schools, Lakes Magnet Middle School, Coeur d’Alene and Lake City high schools, and Project CDA/Bridge Academy.
The Coeur d’Alene School District decided to model its IB programs after one that had proven to be successful in Western Montana, with AP as the other option for students looking for higher level classes for college preparation. And after two years of setting up the coursework and working out the kinks, Lake City High School and Coeur d’Alene High School became accredited by the IB organization in 2006. In the fall, Lake City, which had almost 230 students in IB courses last year and expects 28 juniors to be full IB candidates next year, will be the only high school to offer the IB diploma program as Coeur d’Alene switches its focus to Advanced Placement courses.
‘An advantage to our students’
“We think offering a top-notch world curriculum is an advantage to our students,” Brumley said. “We attract students and parents as a result of our IB program. It’s frequently talked about with people that are shopping our schools as a positive thing. So this whole agenda that we are in some way damaging students or hurting students in some way – I just don’t understand the motive.”
About the IB coursework, he added, “it’s not substantially different than what we would be teaching in a regular government class or AP course anyway … And no one is required to attend Lake City High School and be in the IB program.”
At the start of the school year in 2009, Brumley began hearing the first grumblings about the program’s supposed liberal slant. Accusations that it promotes a socialist agenda and is connected with the United Nations coincided with the announcement that Hayden Meadows would become the first International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program in the area, which Brumley believes was the catalyst in igniting the IB debate.
The elementary school has been working with the framework of the Primary Years Program, the K-5 program offered by the IB organization, throughout the last year, and is currently in the approval process of becoming the first PYP-accredited school in the district starting next year. The school will teach the same material as others in the district, only in the framework provided by the IB organization
“We are teaching the same thing, we’re just teaching it differently. And that’s the difference between our school and the other schools, as a focus on inquiry learning. But we’re teaching the same state standards, we’re teaching the same district curriculum,” Principal Lisa Pica said.
“Teachers build their lessons and units based on the district curriculum and the state standards using the framework that was given to us by IB. So we don’t teach anything that’s different, it’s just how we go about teaching it, at the primary level anyway.”
Concerns from conservatives
For Duncan Koler, last year also marked the moment that he went from a quiet critic to outspoken campaigner in his criticism of the IB programs. Koler, a Hayden attorney who had one of his children attending Hayden Meadows before removing them last year because of PYP, said he has for years been concerned about the IB program, starting in 2006 when another of his children went through some of Coeur d’Alene High School’s IB courses.
“At first we didn’t want a lot of media publicity. It was just kind of a letter writing campaign to the press and stuff like that,” Koler said about his initial involvement, before becoming a sort of de facto-leader of the local opponents last year.
“We started to become concerned about some of the stuff that was coming home. There seemed to be an inordinate amount of time spent on environmental stuff and population issues, for example,” he recalled. “I would say I’m fairly conservative and I’m interested in what’s going on politically. I’m not politically active per se, but I’ve had my ears open and my eyes open now for a while, and so I’m interested in that stuff. We like to hear what the kids are learning; we are involved in our kids’ education.”
Koler said many of the IB lessons seemed to have liberal leanings, with environmental and socio-political issues placed at the forefront. Opponents also claim that it promotes U.N. and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizaton (UNESCO) standards, and is pushing for a global education format.
“That raised objections to us because we would prefer schools to be apolitical,” he said. “It just seems to me and to my wife that we live in a time that, man, it’s polarized. There’s a lot of polarization of society and I just think it would be better … if the kids weren’t drawn into that one way or the other, one direction or another. Maybe exposed to it, yes, but not in a biased approach, and we feel that the IB is a biased approach toward, in harmony with, the U.N.’s overall agenda.”
Contentious school board meetings
As the critics to the program have become more outspoken, school board meetings have increasingly become the battlegrounds for the debate. At a recent meeting in early June, in which people on both sides of the issue showed up to voice their opinions, community member Leah Southwell, who authored an anti-IB column that was published in the local media, called into question whether IB should be part of the district’s schools of choice.
“We all support general education, we all support the academic discipline, but we do not support anything that is controversial, potentially politically driven or agenda driven,” she told the school board members. “And that’s really what we are asking you to consider is that this doesn’t really belong in the choices of magnet schools.”
Program supporters and IB writings, however, roundly reject notions of anti-American edicts and socialist teachings.
The IB program’s website says it “promotes intercultural understanding and respect, not as an alternative to a sense of cultural and national identity, but as an essential part of life in the 21st century.”
The organization’s mission, the website reads, is to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and compassionate students who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect, which it does through programs that encourage students to become active and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.”
It’s within the last sentence that critics of the program provide fuel for the debate. As for the future of IB programs in Coeur d’Alene, the school board approved a measure that will set up a superintendant-led task force to research the criticisms, which will then report its findings to the public in August.