High School IB programs await change in Minneapolis


High school is hard. Choosing a high school, however, is proving even harder. Magnet, Open, AP, IB, Cosmetology, Arts and Humanities…the list goes on and on. Then, there are the issues of attendance area, pathway schools and oversubscription. How is a parent or child supposed to make an educated decision?

Jane Kohnen, who has an eighth grade daughter at Lake Harriet Community School has taken an active role in searching for the best high school education for her child. Between keeping up with school board meeting decisions, participating in the Minneapolis Public School online parents forum, and listening when her daughter puts down her iPod long enough to offer her opinions, Kohnen admits that her quest is becoming more challenging. “I’m in the midst of all this,” she says, seeming somewhat overwhelmed.

Currently, entrance requirements in Twin Cities high schools are significantly different in Minneapolis and in St. Paul. Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) admit students school by school through an extensive application process. St. Paul has an open enrollment that is handled outside of individual school administrations. MPS have been under fire in recent months for not creating appropriate standards for entry into high school, particularly in some of the more popular or academically challenging programs. In Minneapolis, the two most oversubscribed educational tracks are the Edison Cosmetology and Southwest IB programs. Because the high academic standards of the IB program at Southwest are attractive to many students, and because it tends to exclude large numbers of students, parents and educators are taking issue with MPS policies.

The International Baccalaureate Organization was founded in Switzerland in 1968 and introduced the International Baccalaureate Program (IBP) into the school system. In 2,122 schools in 125 countries, the IB program unites youth ages 3-19 by a shared curriculum of rigorous courses, no matter what their native language may be. The program has three segments: The Primary Years Program (age 3-12), Middle Years Program (age 11-16) and the Diploma Program (age 16-19). The IB program is an international education that focuses on developing the whole child. Students are challenged to become critical and creative thinkers who are able to contribute to a rapidly changing world and respond to a variety of attitudes and cultures. Universities worldwide recognize the IB diploma and many educators consider it to be one of the most demanding programs available for high school students.

The United States has the largest conglomeration of IB programs with 795 schools participating nationwide. In Minnesota, the IB program is offered by 24 schools. Of those, five are Twin Cities high schools with Central, Harding and Highland Park in St. Paul and Southwest and Patrick Henry in Minneapolis.

At St. Paul’s Central High School, IB Coordinator Leslie Warner Tonyan works with students to make sure the program is tailored to their needs. “If [a student] feels they can do it, we’ll support them,” she says. At Central, and at other St. Paul high schools, the IB staff starts the process early, introducing the program in the ninth grade to educate all students, regardless of their academic standing, about its benefits. “Teams of diploma candidates go into classrooms and teachers talk about it in class,” says Warner Tonyan, “Finally, the student tells their homeroom teacher if they’re interested and then they meet with me…we try to narrow it down but it’s inclusive and open to anyone.”

Such is not the case in Minneapolis, where there are strict entrance requirements for IB candidates. Students must turn in an application form, possess a minimum 3.0 GPA, take an in-class essay and write a separate personal essay. Southwest also requires students to have had 95% attendance. These criteria may soon be a thing of the past, however, as the MPS Board of Education has been reviewing policy issues including entrance requirements for high school programs. The IB is one of many Small Learning Communities, or SLCs, in Minneapolis high schools, which provide students with a feeling of being in a smaller community within a much larger high school population.

At its most recent meeting on September 25, the Minneapolis school board discussed student enrollment, achievement statistics and how districts are functioning. According to the strategic planning team’s findings, students who left Minneapolis public schools did so because of “a learning environment that included behavior problems and safety concerns, inadequate academic rigor, and concern about the district’s ability to deliver quality education in the future.” The next board meeting will bring recommendations for program modifications.

Dr. William Smith, principal of Southwest High School, hopes these findings aid in changing the current system, particularly with IB programs. “I get about four calls a week from parents asking about IB,” says Dr. Smith, “People have an interest in the education of their child. We don’t want to give them false information.”

Southwest feels the brunt of the oversubscription problem. Each year, IB fills quickly, still leaving most Southwest classrooms with 30-40 students each. “We have more applicants each year than we can physically deal with,” says Smith, “We have the second largest enrollment in Minneapolis but the smallest or second smallest building. We can’t take 3,000 kids.”

There has been talk of expanding the number of programs in Minneapolis, perhaps placing one at Washburn High School, putting an IB program at each area high school, or making Southwest an IB school and requiring all attending students to do the IB program. Smith predicts that there will eventually be no performance criteria and that families will receive a high school guide where they can then check their first, second and third choices. If a student’s first choice is full, the school will follow a sequence, looking at pathway schools, attendance area or having a sibling at the same school to make their decision.

At St. Paul’s Central High School, the more common problem is undersubscription. Although Central has more than 2,600 students this year and every room is used every hour of the school day, Warner Tonyan says that it almost never has a problem of having too many students in one IB track class, but instead sometimes struggles to fill certain classes. “St. Paul has a [class size] limit—nothing under 15,” she explains. As for staffing issues, most of the IB teachers have several years of experience with the program and there are so many new teachers interested in IB that Warner-Tonyan says she always has people “waiting in the wings.” The few glitches Central’s IB program has are similar to those found at most other schools: a lack of resources and money for teacher training.

Minneapolis parent Kohnen thinks the problem lies with the Small Learning Communities. “The big difference between St. Paul and Minneapolis is that when they made the SLCs in Minneapolis, they took the Magnet and IB programs and made them SLCs,” she says. “St. Paul made the SLCs under the IB program [so it’s the opposite]. Highland [Park Senior High School] has three SLCs under one IB…why St. Paul has done so well is because they haven’t limited it.” Instead of overhauling the entire program, Kohnen suggests enlarging the SLCs in Minneapolis and hiring more teachers to teach the IB program, or dealing with the space issue at Southwest by putting all the 9th grade students over at Washburn. “Let’s get creative,” she says, “there are so many creative things they can do.”

Regardless of how students get accepted, IB continues to be one of the most popular high school programs in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Not only do students gain a sense of self and of the world, they also learn valuable skills for their future university or professional careers. Former Southwest High School student, Nicole Crews, remembers her IB experience as very demanding but highly useful. “It got me into Spellman,” says Crews, “it really prepared me for my classes in college, both in my undergraduate and master’s programs. Many of the books I read in college I had already read in high school.”

While the Minneapolis Public School parents and teachers wait anxiously for the recommendations of the school board on IB and other high school programs, St. Paul remains content to use its current system. Warner Tonyan, who will have 400 students doing IB testing this year, hopes St. Paul will continue its open enrollment and rejection of entrance exams. “People ask, ‘how does it work if you let everybody in?’” says Warner Tonyan, “I don’t know, but it does.”

Colette Davidson is a free-lance writer in Minneapolis.