With the world trending more and more toward globalization, more and more Shawnee Mission School District students are going International. The academically challenging International Baccalaureate (IB) Program, which was introduced at Shawnee Mission East High School in 1995, expanded into Shawnee Mission Northwest in 2008 and is being offered for the first time at Shawnee Mission North this year.
As its name implies, the program has a worldly focus and global reach. IB is offered in more than 140 nations and more than 2,300 public and private secondary schools.
To earn a diploma in the two-year program, juniors and seniors must successfully complete work in six wide-ranging subject areas. In the process, they will achieve proficiency in a foreign language and learn an appreciation and understanding for other nations and cultures.
Shawnee Mission is the only district in Johnson County, and one of a handful of districts in the metropolitan area, that offers an IB program. To implement and sustain such a program, a district must pay a $10,000 fee to enter the program and also invest in special training for IB teachers. That can pose a challenge in an era of tight budgets.
Rebecca Murphy, longtime IB coordinator at SM East, understandably is appreciative that district leadership is willing to make the investment. “Shawnee Mission has seen the benefits of this, and I applaud the district because even with all the budget cuts they have expanded the program,” Murphy says.
Since IB’s inception at East, students from anywhere in the district could enroll in the program if they were willing to transfer into the school and if they could qualify. But some students did not like the idea of shifting to a school farther from home and their friends.
Murphy believes expansion to the other two high schools has changed that and clearly contributed to an increase in IB interest. Enrollment in the program has quadrupled in the past five years. At Northwest, for instance, fewer than 30 students participated in the first year of IB, and this year nearly 170 will be enrolled.
“Before it was offered in multiple schools, students were intimidated about getting into IB.”
“Before it was offered in multiple schools, students were intimidated about getting into IB. Once the district made the commitment to other schools, more people saw the benefits of it,” Murphy says.
The district also abandoned a requirement that IB enrollees meet a set of strict criteria in order to qualify for the program. Murphy said the district realized some students were being denied a chance to prove they could handle IB.
“I’m honest with them if I think it’s going to be a stretch for them,” Murphy says. “But I’m a real proponent of having the broader access to the program.”
That’s because she has seen students perform well who would not have qualified under the old guidelines. Success depends less on a set of qualifying criteria than on how hard a student is willing to work, she says.
Jane Reed, IB coordinator at North Kansas City High School and past president of Midwest IB Schools, said the enrollment rise in Shawnee Mission is part of a trend elsewhere.
“There’s been a real increase in the last five years to open access to as many kids as possible…but the quality has stayed pretty consistent,” Reed says. While success in IB requires being a good student and a hard worker, it otherwise can be difficult to predict who will flourish in the program.
“You can’t draw a profile of an IB kid. But a common characteristic in our area is kids who are motivated and want to challenge themselves,” Reed says. Shawnee Mission Northwest IB Coordinator Bill Sanderson agreed, adding, “The myth is that you have to be one of the very top students to be in IB. It’s kids who are college-bound and want to do well there.”The program’s demanding nature clearly is not for everyone, and many students do not find that out until they experience it.
“It varies from school to school, but there is about a 50 percent attrition rate, which is quite high,” Reed says.
But for those who stick with the program, there are clear rewards. “They develop habits of persistence. Also, time management is required to finish. They develop a skill set and the confidence to develop things in a short period at a high level,” Reed says. “Academically they are well prepared because they can read and analyze at a high level.”
The attention to learning about and from other cultures is among the unique aspects and benefits of IB.
“The students get exposed to things from different perspectives and become more in touch with different cultures. They are taught to respect the views of other countries. They get to look at things from an international point of view instead of one point of view,” Murphy says. An emphasis also is placed on involvement in community service programs and projects.
“We want to see students grow as people, not just academicians,” Murphy says.
While enrollment in IB limits how many elective classes student they can take, Murphy said the demands of the program do not discourage students from participation in extra-curricular activities.
“We have kids in every sport and lots of other activities and we have kids who work at jobs. It is a study in time management. You really have to learn that,” Murphy says.
All of this helps students in reaching their higher education goals. “The students learn a set of skills that help ensure they will be successful when they get to college. They have a good future for college placement,” Murphy says.
In fact, up to a year of college credit can be earned by the students through the IB program.
Being required to complete all IB offerings, rather than selecting only classes that they like, prepares them well for college demands, Murphy says. “It challenges kids to be good at subjects that aren’t their best subjects or what they are most passionate about,” she says.
“What it yields is students who will indeed be able to handle any new challenges without being afraid of it,” Reed adds.
Sanderson said the program has produced some pleasant plusses for students
that he had not foreseen.
“There’s an incredible sense of togetherness and support. They have study groups and they support each other on (preparing for) exams,” Sanderson says. “They get incredibly close, and that’s pretty cool. That’s a by-product we didn’t anticipate.”