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At end of first year, students find Park High IB program rigorous, rewarding

Jake Speirs discusses an idea for his International Baccalaureate essay project with Aaron Pozzini, the program coordinator. Speirs is among 29 juniors wrapping up their first year as IB diploma candidates. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente

Camden Knoff said there were nights this past school year when he would go home and throw his backpack down in frustration at the academic challenges he faced.

The 17-year-old is among juniors finishing up a grueling first year as diploma candidates in the International Baccalaureate program at Park High School. Knoff said he signed up for the high-level coursework because he wanted to take the best classes available. He found that it was hard to be in the first-year program, but doesn't regret the decision.

"I'm definitely glad that I did it," Knoff said as he took a break recently from starting research on his summer essay project. "I was expecting it to be a challenge and it was a challenge."

That has been the experience of other students in the IB diploma candidate program as they wrap up their first year of classes, prepare to research a master's thesis-like essay over the summer and get ready for their senior year. Many who signed up for the program said they expected a challenge, discovered that to be the case but are glad they enrolled.

Program administrators and teachers said the first year has been a success, though not one without the glitches and surprises that come with starting a new education program.

The District 833 IB program was launched at Park last fall. Administrators say 34 students signed up for the diploma candidate program, an education track separate from regular high school classes and advanced placement courses. Additionally, hundreds of other students enrolled in one or more of the IB classes, but are not diploma candidates. The IB curriculum, used worldwide, blends rigorous coursework that requires critical thinking skills and is meant to prepare students for post-secondary education. There also is a service and volunteer component, as the IB diploma candidate program wants to see personal growth over an 18-month period

Students challenged

'beyond measures'

Park Principal Dr. Efe Agbamu, who was instrumental in launching the IB program, said she has been amazed by how students responded to the curriculum.

"I never thought the kids were going to rise up as much as they have," she said. "You have these big plans and then you get it in place and you wonder if the kids will bite. Not only do they bite, but they chew it and finish eating it."

"Honestly, I'm just happy that our kids have chosen to challenge themselves beyond measures."

The students in the diploma candidate program said teachers and staff gave them sufficient warning that the coursework was demanding. The incentive was the possibility of scoring well enough on IB exams in the senior year to qualify for college credits.

That was among the reasons Tasha Hartenstein said she signed up. She said she realized later that colleges vary in how or whether they award credits for completion of the IB program, but as the year went on Hartenstein realized there was a more important reason for her to be an IB diploma candidate.

"I wanted to know how to work hard before you get to a place where you actually have to work hard," Hartenstein said, adding that her "abnormally high stress tolerance" helped her this year.

Of the 34 students who started the diploma candidate program last fall, 29 remain in the class. Two of them attended private schools and transferred to Park for IB. There is one student from the Woodbury High School boundary, and one who would be assigned to East Ridge High School if she wasn't in IB. The rest of the diploma candidates are from Park's attendance boundary.

Hannah Betsinger, who lives in Woodbury, said she transferred from Woodbury High to Park because she wanted the high-level education.

"I wanted to do IB (because) I wanted a more challenging program," Betsinger said.

Five students left the program during the year.

"For some of them, it got to be too much," said Aaron Pozzini, the school's IB coordinator. "These are kids learning to budget every minute of their day."

Different learning

Particularly challenging for students was a chemistry course. For most, chemistry was a new subject. On top of that, the IB chemistry class is comparable to a chemistry course taught at a four-year university or college.

Making it even more challenging, the chemistry course used IB principals of student-led work; they were given chemistry problems and had to design lab experiments to solve the problems. In typical high school chemistry classes, the labs are already designed for the students.

"Chemistry was tough," said Rachel Piette, because the students had not taken previous chemistry classes.

It all culminated in a big stumbling block earlier in the year.

"It was primarily the labs that crushed these kids," Pozzini said. However, he explained, once they began to understand the IB approach to chemistry, they improved. And the students' introduction and experience with that type of learning makes them more likely to succeed in college.

"I like it, but it's frustrating," diploma candidate Jennifer Brown admitted of IB. "You have to learn a whole different way."

Brown said the IB curriculum is tough, "but it's also manageable if you learn how to manage it."

Madeline Burbank, a junior, said already she feels more prepared for college having taken one year of IB classes: "It was a lot more demanding than I expected."

Pozzini said the IB program is not for every student. The key to excelling is not necessarily having book smarts; it's more important to be inquisitive.

"You need to be someone who's curious," he said.

The program is poised to grow in its second year. There are 39 incoming juniors planning to enroll in the IB diploma candidate program. Pozzini and Agbamu said more will be done to prepare future classes, including by incorporating some IB principles in ninth- and 10th-grade classes. Also, IB preparatory classes will be offered. That wasn't available to this first class of juniors.

Agbamu said this year's class has exceeded expectations.

"If you provide the opportunity, the students will rise up to it," she said.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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