Twenty-seven freshmen at Mount Pleasant High School have embarked upon a journey which, if all goes according to plan, will result in most of them joining a very select fraternity. In the process, they will make Delaware education history. It is not anticipated, however, that they will stand alone in that accomplishment for long.

Those girls and boys are enrolled in a preparatory program intended to ready them to enter the first International Baccalaureate Program to be available in a public school in this state when they begin their junior year in September, 2004. If they complete the academically rigorous curriculum successfully, they will receive two high school diplomas when the Class of '06 graduates, have all but guaranteed entrée into whatever college they wish to attend and more than a leg up on a successful adult career.

The present group will be joined in September by about twice their number in next year's incoming freshman class and some rising seventh-graders entering Talley Middle School, Mount Pleasant's

feeder school, which will begin a more extensive International Baccalaureate middle years program to serve future aspirants.

Brandywine School District and its Board of Education two years ago designated Mount Pleasant as the venue for offering an International Baccalaureate curriculum. Since then, a team of faculty members led by Lynn Wright has been going through a by-no-means-automatic acceptance process while preparing themselves to teach the courses the curriculum requires.

The process, Wright said, is on track and on schedule, but she's cautious about erring on the side of prematurity. With reference to the courses now being offered, she said, "Don't call it 'pre-I.B.' We're not certified yet and we're not supposed to use that term until we've been officially accepted."

Coordinator Lynn Wright (left) with prospective International Baccalaureate students Brittany Finocchio, Philip Weigel and Sylvia Dee.

The big hurdle in that regard is a site visitation next autumn by a team of evaluators. If the annual state assessment tests that designated public school students take are considered high stakes, that inspection and the rest of the acceptance process is much more so. Success will literally put Mount Pleasant and the Brandywine district in a class almost unto itself.

It will join Wilmington Friends School, which is about a year farther along in the process, as the only International Baccalaureate schools in Delaware. There are only about 70 in the United States and 1,400 in 144 countries around the world. The closest are Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md., Washington (D.C.) International School and the United Nations International School in New York City.

Introducing the program here is the outgrowth of a 'magnet school' suggestion made by Mount Pleasant principal Dennis Runyon and Harlan Intermediate School principal Anita Thrope. Before coming to Delaware, Runyon taught in a school in Florida which has an International Baccalaureate curriculum although he did not teach any of those courses.

Brandywine's superintendent, Bruce Harter, and the school board make no secret of the fact that introducing the program into the district is closely allied to and influenced by the new call for competitiveness in education. Harter has said that including it, along with other elements, in the district's long-range improvement program is intended to keep pace with private schools, which in Brandywine Hundred and the rest of northern Delaware attract a disproportionate number of students when compared to most other places in the nation. Coupled with state's public school choice law, it also is intended as an attraction to draw from the broader public school 'market'.

Be all that as it may, Wright makes clear that qualifying to offer the program is a veritable cakewalk when placed next to being able to successfully complete the curriculum.

"It is the most stringent liberal arts curriculum I have seen in my 35 years as a teacher," she said.

For starters, 16-, 17- and 18-year-old students are required to take a full load of one- and two-year courses in the second half of their high school careers which, for all practical purposes are college level. Some colleges award holders of International Baccalaureate diplomas immediate sophomore-year status.

Mount Pleasant plans to include English literature and composition, mathematics study and methods, biology, chemistry, French and Spanish, visual arts and history of the Americas in its curriculum. Students must take six of the courses -- three or four of which must be two-year higher-level courses.

In all the courses, the approach to teaching is focused, she said, "not on the who and what, but on the why."

Critical thinking and imparting decision-making ability have become education catchwords of late, but in the International Baccalaureate program they are the raison d'être. "For years we have been talking about doing this. I.B. forces the issue," Wright said.

While participating schools can select specific courses to offer from a broader menu, Wright said the Geneva, Switzerland-based International Baccalaureate Organization keeps close tabs on what is being taught and how it is being taught. "What make it (the program) so strong is the amount of control that they exercise. We have a good bit of flexibility, but we have to operate within their framework. They are continuing [to] monitor assessment and performance," she said.

The program's standards carry teacher accountability to the limits. Teachers, for instance, are required to predict each of their students' performance two within two points on a scale of seven points -- a stringent measure of how closely that teacher knows and interacts with his or her students.

Required to be included in the curriculum is a component called 'Theory of Knowledge' which, she said, focuses "not only on what [students] know but how they know it." There also is a community participation component which requires 150 hours of community service, creative activity and artistic and cultural involvement which "gets to kids to think beyond themselves [and to understand] their need to give back to family and community."

That is capped by a requirement to produce a 4,000-word original essay, comparable to a college thesis, and to pass essay-type examinations evaluated by educators who may be situated in any place in the world.

It is obvious, then, that being an International Baccalaureate student requires a serious and extended commitment. That alone, Wright said, is a measure of a young person's "willingness to take an academic risk." There is no guarantee of success anywhere along the way. It is, however, possible to take a partial program -- leading to a certificate rather than a diploma -- which opens it to students who are strong in particular academic areas although not in all.

It will be a thorough evaluation procedure for admission into the program at Mount Pleasant. Using an objective point system, prospective students are evaluated beginning with recommendations from their eighth-grade teachers through personal interviews. The same criteria are applied equally to applicants who live in the Mount Pleasant attendance area or elsewhere in the district, who live in the Brandywine district or in other districts, and who have attended public or non-public elementary school.

"We're not necessarily looking for those with the best records, but those who's attitude and past record show that they have the best chance to succeed," Wright said. "The important thing is now who I keep out but who I am able to get in."

That, she said, appears to have worked out with the unofficial first-year curriculum. Two of the original 27 have dropped out, but they have been replaced by two from a waiting list. Wright expects 21 or 22 from the group to enter the actual program in 2004. There are a sufficient number of applicants for the unofficial curriculum next year to have two groups with 14 youngsters already committed for them.

Brandywine is treating the program the same as its self-contained 'academically gifted' program with open enrollment to all district residents. Out-of-district applicants must come through and meet the conditions of the public school choice procedure.

In a sense, the difference between enrolling in high school and signing up for the International Baccalaureate program can be considered comparable to the difference between joining the Boy or Girl Scouts and enlisting in the Marine Corps.

Even so, the rewards for making it in the program are certain. "For those who are willing, it's a tremendous opportunity,": Wright said.

Posted on March 3, 2003

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Read previous story: International program will take Friends students to a new level
Go to the International Baccalaureate Organization Web site for complete information about the program
Go to a listing of schools in the United States and Canada participating in the International Baccalaureate program
Go to the International Baccalaureate Program section of the Mount Pleasant High School Web site

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