In bid to keep students, Sacramento districts launch IB programs

A couple of decades ago, Mira Loma High School offered students the only Sacramento-area access to an elite International Baccalaureate curriculum, a rigorous program that has built a reputation for sending graduates to top universities.

But as schools compete for students and face pressure from parents to raise the academic bar close to home, many large school districts in the region have since added or pursued their own IB programs. Ten have been certified in Sacramento and Placer counties, while at least eight more are in the pipeline.

“We wanted a strong program in our own high school,” said Anna Vue, a Natomas parent who organized a core group of parents to pressure Natomas Unified leaders to create an IB program at Inderkum High starting in fall 2014. “We did not want to get into a car at 6:30a.m. and drive our kids to another high school.”

IB programs can be tough going for all but the most committed students, advocates say. They require advanced study in languages, social and natural sciences, mathematics, history and art. The program’s goal is to guide students to be independent, critical thinkers with a global perspective.

The programs operate in 146 countries, according to IB spokeswoman Colleen Duffy. They are in close to 1,500 public and private schools in the United States and more than 140 in California.

Mira Loma High School, in the San Juan Unified School District, remains the region’s IB gold standard. For years, it has enticed the region’s best young students to cross district boundaries, drawn by a track record of sending graduates to the nation’s best universities. Students regularly compete in national academic competitions, including a team that won the National Science Bowl in April.

“We’ve been doing this now for 20 years,” said David Mathews, in charge of the IB diploma program at Mira Loma, where 1,600 students attend school. “We attract about 75 students from out of the district each year. They come from Folsom Cordova (school district) or from Sacramento City ... and other places. Districts are wanting to keep those students, so they are creating their own programs.”

Senior Gabriel Simmons, 17, is one of the students Natomas Unified might have had in mind when pursuing its new IB program. He lives in Natomas but attends Mira Loma.

“My parents found out about it through family friends,” Simmons said. “My other options were Natomas High School and Inderkum, which has more advanced stuff but not quite as advanced as this.”

Zahra Abadin, 16, and Tejas Pradeep, 17, are enrolled in a Mira Loma course considered an IB diploma capstone – “Theory of Knowledge” – which Mathews described as an “interdisciplinary, critical thinking seminar.” Both came from the Folsom Cordova Unified School District, which has just begun adding an IB program.

Laguna Creek High School became an IB campus in 2011. Granite Bay High School did so in 2008 and, like Mira Loma, begun drawing students from outside the district.

Districts have felt pressure to respond to competition, said Natomas Superintendent Chris Evans.

“I think the parents have become significantly more educated about schools, how their schools are doing, and what options their schools have for their students,” he said. “IB, I think, is increasing in popularity everywhere because of the competition that says parents now have a choice. They can move students from school to school.”

Cordova High School is in its first year of a two-year preparation for IB certification, which can come as early as fall 2015.

“We felt that Rancho Cordova is a really good place to put in one of the best programs around because the students demographically have a lower socio-economic base and they don’t have as high a college-going rate as what we would like to see,” said Janie Sorg, the district’s assistant superintendent for secondary instruction.

IB courses are tailored to grade levels: A primary-years program is designed for kindergarten through fifth grade; a middle-years program operates through 10th grade; and the diploma program is created for high school juniors and seniors.

In east Sacramento, Sacramento City Unified School District board President Jeff Cuneo credited a grass-roots movement for pushing the district to create an IB track at Caleb Greenwood Elementary School and Kit Carson Middle School. Under the plan, Kit Carson will establish IB programs in a campus reconfigured to accommodate grades seven through 12.

“I think the IB model has been around and has a very good track record of producing students ready to go to college and who get the tools to succeed,” said Cuneo.

Elsewhere in Sacramento City Unified, Luther Burbank High School began offering IB courses to students in the graduating class of 2006. Burbank Principal Ted Appel said the program has increased the number of students attending college and staying enrolled. But he said the campus has a different mind-set than other IB diploma schools that aim to attract far-flung students.

“This is one of the real urban IB programs and, unlike many others, we’re not trying to draw kids from other districts,” Appel said. Instead, the large majority of IB students there live in the district.

Anna Vue, the Natomas parent of a sophomore at Inderkum High School, said she organized fellow parents after she became alarmed after learning students were leaving the district to attend Mira Loma.

“It took a year to navigate and identify what it really took to get an IB program,” she said.

Superintendent Evans said Inderkum – from its inception about a decade ago – was viewed as a prospect for an IB program. But parent mobilization helped galvanize the effort.

“The group of parents, back when the district was facing financial hard times, did fundraisers and events with the hope of sending teachers training,” Evans said.

The group created a nonprofit that raised funds and then started a costly process. They paid $4,000 for the initial IB application, another $9,500 for Inderkum to become an IB “candidate” campus, and additional funds for initial IB training for a teacher and a school administrator. The district took over those costs after leaders decided that fundraising was not the appropriate way to build a new IB program, Evans said.

Besides application fees and training costs, IB tests can be costly. At Mira Loma, the tests coast about $100,000 a year. Most students fully pay the cost of taking the test. The school district, by using state funds, pays on behalf of students who show financial need, Mathews said.

Vue said her son is in line to be among the first Inderkum graduates of the IB diploma program, which will seek its certification next year for the program begin operating in fall 2014. The program will focus on juniors and seniors.

Last week, sophomores Desmond Moreno-Livingston and Will Roberts, both 15, practiced equations to measure momentum and impulse in an Inderkum IB physics class. Moreno-Livingston said he’s still evaluating whether he will pursue a full IB diploma when he becomes a junior in 2014.

Roberts said he’s already made up his mind.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for me,” Roberts said. The other school for him, he said, would have been Mira Loma, “and it’s out of the way.”

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