Go to the Mount Pleasant High spring musical and you'll see them in the cast and backstage. Take in a track meet and they will be among the competitors. They can also be found running a gamut of teen things which stretches from singing in church choirs to hanging at the mall.

Despite the fact that they are students following what arguably is the most rigorous academic curriculum in Delaware -- or maybe because they are -- a representative sample of the 70 students enrolled in preparatory classes leading up to full participation in the International Baccalaureate diploma program makes it clear they don't intend to let that interfere with keeping pace with the typical involved high schooler.

"Some days are more hectic than others, but you get real good at managing time," said Sylvia Dee when asked how she juggles a complex schedule. In that, she added, she is no different from others in the program. "We're all into sports and other school activities," she said.

That's mostly a matter of personal preference, but there is a not-so-incidental matter of maintaining an image of not being a-typical. That is likely to become harder to do over the course of the next couple of years.

Come September, the third of the preparatory students who are sophomores will begin the two-year

course of study which will lead to most of them receiving not only a state diploma but also an internationally recognized and prestigious International Baccalaureate one in June, 2006.

They will be the first graduates of a Delaware public school to do so. Wilmington Friends School, a private high school, expects to graduate its first International Baccalaureate students in June, 2005.

As might be expected, with the acceptance of their school as a full participant in the International Baccalaureate program the Mount

Lynn Wright (left) with students in Mount Pleasant High's International Baccalaureate program. They are: sophomores Jacinta Gracias and Sylvia Dee and freshmen Brittanie Booker, Brian Ross and Margaret Appleyard-Smith

Pleasant youngsters have already achieved poster-person status in the Brandywine School District. And they are certain, in short order, to become examples of the upper reaches of quality in the Delaware public education system.

That may be, as the vernacular of their generation puts it, awesome, but the idea that it makes them elite is, as they say, uncool.

Brian Ross said he has plenty of friends and they don't regard the fact that he is taking different classes as having any great significance on the things he does outside of those classes. "Some kids might think that, but I don't see it" in other classes or extracurricular activities, said Margaret Appleyard-Smith.

International Baccalaureate students take five major subjects as classes within the program and the other two with other students.

Similarly, Appleyard-Smith said, teachers "don't treat us any differently from their other classes." With only one International Baccalaureate preparatory class at the sophomore level and two at the freshmen level, no teacher spends more than a tenth of his or her schedule with those students.

That will not change as the program grows to its planned goal of 100 students in four classes at each grade level, according to Lynn Wright, coordinator of the program.

One anticipated benefit of having the program at Mount Pleasant is to have a significant portion of its faculty take the training necessary to qualify to teach in the program. That will "rub off on the rest of their teaching" and raise the overall quality of teaching at the school, she said. It is intended that as many as possible become qualified.

"The International Baccalaureate teacher workshops are the best continuing professional education I've ever seen," Wright said.

All the teachers involved with the program volunteered for those roles and to take on the extra work it involves. Brittanie Booker said that commitment translates into such things as "taking the time to help us whenever we need it."

With all that, however, there is a camaraderie developing among the rising International Baccalaureate students. All of them are in the program because they want to be. The reward for that is shared experience and "being in a good class with great kids," Appleyard-Smith said.

Although Ross describes himself as "naturally competitive," he said the competition is with the program and its requirements and not among the students. "We all want each other to succeed. None of us wants to be better than anybody else [in the class]," he said. "We won't let anyone fall behind," Dee added.

Although 'challenging' is the adjective most frequently used to describe the program, the students said that is not the same as daunting.  Jacinta Gracias, in fact, said the challenge was the main attraction for her enrolling in it.

To the extent that 'challenge' is a euphemism for 'difficult', none of the students interviewed said they ever considered dropping out nor not moving into the diploma program when they reach junior year.

Not only is that a matter of personal achievement but it also is a collective desire to see the program succeed at Mount Pleasant. Wright pointed out that sophomores in the preparatory program have invested nearly two academic years with no guarantee they would have the opportunity to go on to earn an International Baccalaureate diploma and the enhanced opportunities for further education and career that it comes close to guaranteeing.

Schools must be accepted after fulfilling rigorous standards in order to participate and that is by no means automatic or easy, she said. While having come far enough down that path to be able to institute the preparatory program is likely to lead to eventual acceptance, it frequently does not happen on the school's timetable.

Mount Pleasant and the Brandywine district "had a lot at stake in gambling that we'd make it when we said we would, but nobody had more at stake than the kids," Wright said.

Now that the startup goal has been achieved, there are further ones for the future.

While the number of participants in International Baccalaureate will probably never involve more than a relatively small portion of the Mount Pleasant enrollment, "we expect [benefits] to trickle down to all the other students." To the extent that happens, the school stands a good chance of emerging as something of an academic model for the state.

"It's no secret Mount Pleasant has been losing students to choice. We expect to reverse that," she said. Even more dramatic turnarounds are fairly common where the program is operating.

The International Baccalaureate program is also open to students who come to Mount Pleasant through use of the state's public school choice law. Youngsters who have gone through nonpublic elementary and middle schools also are fully eligible whether or not they live in the Mount Pleasant attendance area..

The students headed into the diploma program acknowledged that they will have a voice in setting standards for those who come after them.

"My friends are already asking me about it. We in the first couple of classes are going to be seen as sort of role models," Dee said.

Posted on March 8, 2004

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