Chicago plans big expansion of International Baccalaureate

Emanuel announces 5 new stand-alone IB high schools, 5 new IB programs in existing high schools.

March 24, 2012

Chicago Public Schools is dramatically expanding a program originally designed for the children of diplomats.

Just one day after a University of Chicago study lauded a constellation of International Baccalaureate programs located in struggling neighborhood high schools, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Friday the city will open five more of the IB programs in high schools across the city.

And he said Chicago will start five stand-alone International Baccalaureate high schools, one in every region of the city. All 10 new programs will open in fall 2013.

“I want parents to know now we’re planning for the future, so as they sit around the kitchen table and their child is in fifth grade, sixth grade—they don’t head for the doors for the suburbs,” Emanuel said from the media center at Curie Metropolitan High School, on the southwest side.

The IB curriculum was developed in Switzerland in 1968 as a college prep program for the children of diplomats. The curriculum, which includes philosophy, foreign language, and four years of math and science, is taught in more than 2,300 IB high schools worldwide.  The program’s international focus is meant to promote “intercultural understanding and respect,” according to the International Baccalaureate Organization.  IB student assignments and exams are sent to other countries to be graded.

A University of Chicago study released Thursday showed students in Chicago’s rigorous neighborhood IB programs are twice as likely to get into highly selective colleges and succeed there than a group of comparison students. The study says the programs are changing the life course of low-income and minority students, who make up the vast majority of students in the program.

Unlike Lincoln Park High School’s IB program, which is highly selective and admits predominantly white and Asian students, the neighborhood IB programs are about 77 percent low-income, and 75 percent African American or Latino.

The expansion will double the current 3,500 Chicago students studying the challenging IB curriculum.

University of Illinois student Diego Frias says the hours of homework he did as an IB student at Curie High School have made college seem easy.

“I go into my history class and I hear that I only have to write two papers a semester. And looking back to my senior year I had to write about 10 papers. And really I aced those (college) papers because IB helps you develop your writing skills tremendously,” said Frias, who said IB also emphasizes “creativity, action and service.”

Currently, students are admitted to the IB programs based on grades, test scores and an interview. Admissions are not as competitive as they are at the city’s vaunted selective enrollment high schools.

But CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said he intends to make it even easier to get in. The new stand-alone IB high schools will not filter students at all. They will be neighborhood schools open to anyone who wants to go.

Brian Spittle, director of the Center for Access and Attainment at DePaul University, thought he heard wrong when Brizard announced there would be no admissions criteria to the new IB high schools.

“I can’t quite see open admissions to IB—oh my goodness. I mean, it would be intriguing! But I think you need some kind of a process, if nothing else to make sure students know what they’re getting into,” said Spittle.

Curie’s IB coordinator, Shayrl Barnes, said juniors and seniors in the program handle a full load of university-level classes. The University of Chicago study found 38 percent of current students leave the IB program before reaching their junior year.

Still, Spittle says he likes the idea of casting a wide net for students. He says DePaul likes admitting CPS IB students; their graduation rates are higher than the university’s as a whole.

“If they keep [IB admissions] as open as possible, I like that idea. That would be quite a story, if Chicago kept to that and saw how this works down the road, because I think it really runs counter to what we tend to do.”

The district plans to involve the public in determining where the five new IB programs and five IB high schools will be located.