Graduates of Wilmington Friends School have never had much difficulty qualifying to go on to college and, in fact, have long been welcome at the most prestigious among them. But the private prep school is now completing a process intended to provide many, if not most, of its students with academic credentials widely recognized around the world.

It is now in the 'dry run' year of a five-year process which will see Wilmington Friends awarding the first International Baccalaureate Organization diplomas to members of the class of '05. They will be the first to receive them at a school in Delaware. Mount Pleasant High School expects to be the second a year later.

Far more significant than being admitted to a relatively exclusive group of schools, participating in the program means "Friends School becomes a global school," according the Rick Grier-Reynolds, the teacher coordinator. With not only the political and economic sectors but the entire spectrum of human activity becoming increasingly more global, that has obvious implications for the rising generation. In effect, it helps put them on a level with their peers in other nations.

It's a matter of helping assure "they're not going to be left behind," he said.

That, in fact, is the reason the program was established. It was set up in the late 1960s so that the children of Europeans posted around the world, particularly in Asia and developing 'Third World' countries, would have access to and be prepared for higher education back home.

What has developed since then, under the auspices of an organization based in Geneva, Switzerland, is an academically rigorous curriculum which emphasizes a large measure of self-motivated development in the context of a traditional liberal education vigorously applied. Grier-Reynolds describes it as a "holistic approach [which] is not normal in most [U.S.] high schools today."

The closest geneally familiar comparison, he said, is with advanced-placement courses which present high schoolers with both college-level material and college-style instruction. If that qualifies in many instances for awarding of college credits, an International Baccalaureate diploma is something akin to a passport to college education.

In Florida, where the program has been strongly embraced, it translates into a full scholarship for a state resident at any institution in the state system. It is hard to generalize, Grier-Reynolds said, but several schools, including the University of Delaware, award credit for having taken some International Baccalaureate courses and admissions directors everywhere "look favorably on applicants with International Baccalaureate diplomas."

There are now 1,365 schools in 112 countries participating in the program.  To be eligible, a school must go through a two-year application process. "They don't just accept you because you ask to join," he said.

Having successfully done so, Wilmington Friends this academic year began offering International Baccalaureate courses. Those taking them will not be able to qualify for International Baccalaureate diplomas. Their academic transcripts, however, will identify them as having done so.

The curriculum is designed for high school juniors and seniors. During those years, students must take six International Baccalaureate-sanctioned courses -- three or four two-year higher-level courses and two or three one-year standard-level courses with a total of at least 100 hours of instructional time. The six study areas are language arts in the student's primary language, mathematics, experimental science, a secondary language not native to the student, history or other social science, and visual arts. In addition, there is a core course in the 'theory of knowledge' -- which is defined as "an interdisciplinary requirement intended to stimulate critical reflection on knowledge and experience gained inside and outside the classroom" -- and an activity requirement calling for 150 hours of participation in community activity, service, sports or the like.

The culmination of that is a series of six comprehensive essay-type examinations administered at the student's school but graded by participating teachers elsewhere, frequently in another country. Grier-Reynolds said that arrangement provides an unbiased assessment of the student's work and, although a single test weighs heavily, the questions are broadly designed to measure the thinking and reasoning process rather than an ability to merely give back memorized facts.

Obviously, participation in such a program requires a strong commitment. At present, Wilmington Friends School sophomores and their parents are being asked to decide whether to sign up. "We're asking them to think it over very carefully  and determine if they're up to the higher level of challenge," said Matt Micciche, assistant head of Wilmington Friends upper school.

On the other hand, he added, no one is being excluded from an opportunity to participate. "It's not going to be an exclusive program. We want it to be open to a broad range of students and we don't want to keep anyone out. But we do want them to know and understand what they're signing up for," he said.

Katherine Dinh, head of the upper school, said it is possible that every student could end up becoming an International Baccalaureate program student. In any event, it is certain that all will be touched in some way by the program. Every faculty member has been trained in the program and is expected to incorporate International Baccalaureate elements into teaching other courses. It is also possible and encouraged that students not enrolled in the program will take one or more International Baccalaureate courses.

The school will award graduates who earn International Baccalaureate diplomas a Wilmington Friends diploma as well.

At a time when a more competitive society and world are placing increased performance demands on high school students, Micciche said, "International Baccalaureate ups the ante that much more."

Posted on October 23, 2002

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