Washtenaw County schools catch the International Baccalaureate bug

As International Baccalaureate schools pick up accolades both nationwide and in our own county, more and more Washtenaw County families want in on both that prestige and rigorous educational method  – and school systems are hurrying to fill that demand.

The International Baccalaureate (IB) method emphasizes inquiry-based learning, cross-cultural understanding and global citizenship. A Geneva-based non-profit parent organization simply called the International Baccalaureate is responsible for holding all IB schools worldwide to the same standards, so an IB diploma holds the same value in any of the many countries where IB schools exist. Here in Michigan, Bloomfield Township's International Academy has developed a particularly sterling national reputation. U.S. News and World Report ranked the IB school as the second-best public high school in the nation in 2009 and 2010, and the school has placed elsewhere on the publication's list in other years.

IB came to Washtenaw County in 2011 with Washtenaw International High School, known as WIHI, the product of a consortium formed by Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Manchester, Chelsea, Lincoln, Milan, Saline, and Whitmore Lake's school districts. The Ypsilanti-based school is open to residents of any of those districts, and those who opt into one of the member districts as a "school of choice" may be admitted to WIHI via a lottery. Since its inception, WIHI has shown impressive results; its students have the highest ACT scores in Washtenaw County, and the third highest in Michigan overall

As a result, demand for the school is growing quickly–particularly among Ann Arbor families. Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) currently contributes about a third of WIHI's 395 students, the highest of any of the participating districts in the consortium. WIHI principal Nhu Do says the school welcomed 200 families to its recent open house, many of them from Ann Arbor.

"I'm confident based on the numbers…that we will continue to have either a stable or growing number of Ann Arbor families interested in a small, inclusive, stand-alone IB program," Do says.

Seeing that demand, AAPS is readying a solution of its own. The district's Mitchell Elementary, Scarlett Middle School and Huron High School are all currently candidates to offer corresponding IB programs by age level. As long as the International Baccalaureate approves AAPS, the district would begin offering its own IB classes in the fall of 2017.

"Once things are fully authorized it would be one of the very few places you could go K-12 IB," says Kevin Karr, AAPS' IB district facilitator. "We've tried to pick a range of options so that every kid can plug into at least a single IB diploma program class that interests them, if not the full diploma."

However, some Ann Arbor parents would still rather send their children to Ypsilanti for an IB education. Kelley Bezrutch moved her two daughters from Ann Arbor's Greenhills School to WIHI when the school opened. One of them was a member of WIHI's first graduating class, and the second is now a senior at the school. Bezrutch she's "not at all" interested in an AAPS IB program for her children, preferring the full IB immersion experience they've gotten at WIHI. 

"Because of the overwhelming success of WIHI along with the sheer number of Ann Arbor families who want this program, AAPS' main motivation is money," says Bezrutch, who is the president of the WIHI PTO. "Their attitude is not, ‘Let's do what's best for our community.' Instead it is, ‘Let's see how we can keep all the funds and accolades to ourselves.'"

AAPS superintendent Jeanice Swift says IB was simply "a really strategic match" with the values and priorities of the Ann Arbor community. She says AAPS' IB program and WIHI will present two distinctly different experiences.

"One is a robust IB program within the setting of a comprehensive high school, so it has things like band and choir and sports, athletics, et cetera, to go along with it," she says. "The other is the small high school setting. It's a very small setting there."

Do says she too believes the two schools can "coexist" rather than compete because they offer different opportunities for students.

"Our philosophy is truly international and student-centered," she says. "In a large comprehensive school it's hard to have all those opportunities because there are so many students. While a large comprehensive school absolutely has a lot to offer, it's just a different opportunity that we have when we're drawing from so many different geographic areas."

However, Do raises the possibility that the growing number of interested Ann Arbor families may outstrip the 40 WIHI students that AAPS is currently committed to funding per grade. However, she remains confident that Ann Arbor students would still be able to go to WIHI in that situation by opting into another of the consortium's member districts as a school of choice. That's already a popular option for many out-of-county WIHI students. A whopping 17 percent of the school's population are school of choice students through Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS), on top of the 20 percent who are actually YCS district residents. 

Swift says AAPS will base its future participation in the WIHI consortium based on what district families want, but AAPS is and will continue to be a "major player" in WIHI.

"If you don't set a number you're not able to balance your budget ahead of time," she says. "We set a number and if that number goes above or below, then we modify accordingly."

Absent from, but relevant to, the WIHI situation is Dexter Community Schools. Dexter High School started its own diploma programme –IB's rough equivalent to a high school program– the same year WIHI opened. The district chose not to participate in the WIHI consortium, which program coordinator Debora Marsh says was "the right decision for Dexter." Marsh explains why the district chose to pass on WIHI and develop its own IB program.

"Schools shouldn't be this way, but right now they are," Marsh says. "They're all about attracting students. And losing your top students to another school was not something we wanted to do."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and a senior writer at Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe .

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