High School 2.0

Trends come and go in education just like anything else. Sometimes they turn out to be the equivalent of legwarmers and cut-up sweatshirts; sometimes they develop the staying power of a beautifully cut suit.

Next fall, ninth grade students in Washtenaw County can attend what some of the best minds in education believe to be the next timeless classic: An International Baccalaureate high school. Schools offering the International Baccalaureate diploma must meet exacting standards set out by the International Baccalaureate organization, a group with members from many countries, which emphasize a rigorous curriculum for the schools. They've become a very sought-after model for schools after another Michigan IB school, the International Academy in Bloomfield Hills, was named one of America's Top High Schools  by Newsweek magazine a few years back. International Academy was the first public all-IB school in the country when it opened in 1996.

However, the IB model is not for every school and not for every student. It's definitely aimed at the smartest kids, and even some of them may not want to abandon the traditional American model for the very different approach pursued at an IB school.

"The international idea of philosophy and education plays a really important role," says Naomi Norman, who is coordinating the IB school coming to Washtenaw County. "There are really academically strong students who don't choose to come to the program because all of their needs are really well met in a traditional school."

A math class in an IB school, for example, would focus more on building the skills needed to be a mathematician than teaching algebra, geometry and calculus as subjects without context. Classes are longer and more inquiry-based than test-focused. It's more like a spiral staircase, where skills learned in different classes are used again and again across the curriculum as a student advances, then a straight stair-step, where students go from one class to the next building on earlier skills.

"What all (IB) programs have in common is an emphasis on conceptually driven, trans-disciplinary, inquiry approaches to teaching. This is what might make a math lesson in an IB school look different from a math lesson in a non-IB school," says Carolyn O'Mahony, who heads the graduate certificate program in IB education at Oakland University.

All IB diploma candidates, as high school students are known, must take humanities and science courses as part of the program, and design and implement a service project. A philosophy course focusing on the theory of knowledge and proficiency in a second language are also hallmarks of the IB curriculum. "The IB Diploma Program fosters the development of well-rounded thinkers and community-minded individuals, whose high school qualification is respected around the world," O'Mahony says.

Superintendents who work together through the Washtenaw Intermediate School District approached the district about possibly creating an IB program. After a protracted process of investigation and community input, they developed their proposal and began asking for approval from each of the county's school boards who could potentially participate. Everyone voted unanimously to participate, Norman says.

Slots will be awarded proportionally -- larger districts get more, smaller districts get less, and will be offered by lottery. Student will bring their "foundation grant" –- the amount of money their district spends on them, which varies by district -- to the school, which will have a $1.4 million annual budget. The first year's class will be made up of 150 ninth graders, and a new class will be added every year until the school has all four grades.

Teachers will also be paid what they would make in their home districts. Jobs at the school will be posted and anyone can apply, but they are certainly looking for a specific sort of teacher, Norman said. "We are looking for teachers who are really committed to the IB model, who are eager and willing to work in a start-up school environment, and willing to help do some of the planning and establishing of a really diverse international school environment," she says. "We're going to be looking for a combination of those things as well as being strong teachers within their discipline."

Oakland University offers one of the only graduate certifications in IB education for teachers wishing to work in an IB school - including those at lower levels such as the Primary Years Programme and the Middle Years Programme, which are less common than high schools in the Unites States. OU was one of the first universities in the world to establish a relationship directly with the International Baccalaureate Organization.

Teachers at the Washtenaw County school will not be required to have the graduate certificate, but the program allows teachers who wish to teach in such academically rigorous schools the chance to become proficient in the type of teaching IB requires and earn a graduate certificate that also puts them most of the way towards a masters' degree in education, O'Mahony says.

The former East Middle School in Ypsilanti will house the school. Norman says the planning committee looked at several options in all participating districts and found East School will meet its needs best; there's easy access from freeways and bus lines. She says that if you drew a circle around the areas of greatest population density in Washtenaw County, the school would be right in the middle.

"The school is newly renovated. It's a really beautiful building with exactly the kind of space we need," Norman says. "One of our driving missions is to have a very diverse student body, and this location will be easy for all students to access."

Several new approaches to educating high school students have been tried in Washtenaw County in recent years. A New Tech high school, based on a national model that uses technology to create project-based learning, opened in the Ypsilanti public school district this fall, and Washtenaw County Community College has a Middle College program that allows high school students to take college level courses at no cost to them.

Norman thinks the planned IB school fits well with the alternatives offered by other districts, and that the consortium approach, with many districts working together to make the school successful, allows for a better result. "I think we are smarter together," she says. "When you have multiple perspectives you take into account a larger group of students' needs and make much better decisions. The consortium model puts us into collaborative mode versus a competitive one."

Washtenaw International Baccalaureate School is slated to open in the fall of 2011. An open house will take place next month (January 2011) with enrollment beginning in February.

Detroit freelancer Amy Kuras has written about local schools – among a host of other topics –for more than a decade. She is a regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.


Naomi Norman in the art room of the former East Middle School

Naomi in the halls of the future Washtenaw County International Baccalaureate School

The Oakland County International Baccalaureate School

Naomi overlooks I-94 from the front of the
future Washtenaw County International Baccalaureate School

The Oakland County International Baccalaureate School

Naomi Norman in the art room of the former East Middle School

Naomi Norman photos by Doug Coombe

Oakland County International Baccalaureate School photos by Tom Hendrickson

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