No IB for middle, high school? Other options emerging

In the 10 years since James River Elementary officially established the International Baccalaureate Programme, hundreds of students have emerged from the division's only elementary-level school choice program.

That internationally focused education curriculum, from which students leave with a second language and broader cultural awareness, is limited to kindergarteners through fifth graders at James River. Despite talks over the last decade, Williamsburg-James City County hasn't expanded IB to the middle or high school level.

IB is an international organization that offers educational curricula, called programmes, from kindergarten to 12th grade. Its mission is to promote intercultural understanding and respect as a key part of life in the 21st century.

A Geneva-based nonprofit, IB has been in schools in the United States since 1971. There are 1744 IB schools in the country, including 517 Primary Years Programmes, which James River employs.

While students zoned for James River are automatically enrolled in the program, families from around the division can apply to the program. Families apply and are accepted based on a lottery. The number of open slots and applicants varies from year-to-year, James River's IB coordinator Amy Strawn said.

More than 30 students are enrolled as magnet students this year.

Bottom up

Most districts establish the program in high school first, called the Diploma Programme where students who pass certain IB tests emerge with not only a high school diploma, but an IB Diploma as well, which translates to college credits at some institutions.

Ruth Larson served on the WJCC School Board from 2006, when James River was accredited as an IB program, to 2015 when she won a seat on the James City County Board of Supervisors. Both of her daughters opted to go to James River for the IB program.

"We're sort of unique in that most programs start at the high school level and work down, but we started at the bottom to go up," Larson said.

But there hasn't been an expansion yet. The movement to add a middle and high school program gained speed in the late 2000s, but hasn't been discussed much since.

"We did talk about it as a board about possibly doing it at all middle schools, making sure it was in place at all middle schools then making it to the high schools," Larson said. "But frankly it was always a budgetary consideration on the expansion of it."

The costs associated with establishing an IB programme are not just fees paid to the organization, but there are specific training requirements for teachers and materials for classes, said division spokeswoman Betsy Overkamp-Smith. The program at James River cost the division $115,547 in fiscal year 2016.

"At this point in time and in past couple years, it has not been priority of the board and has not been a budgetary priority either," said Scott Thorpe, the division's director of special programs and accountability.

If the programs were to act as magnets, as James River does, extra buses to get students to and from could also be an added cost.

Right now, fifth-grader Olivia Rabinowitz and her brother, Evan, spend nearly an hour on the bus to get to James River. Next year, Olivia's commute time will drop dramatically — it's only a 20 minute ride from her house to Hornsby Middle, the school she's zoned for.

"(The bus ride) is a sacrifice, but they love it," Jodi Rabinowitz said. "I really wish they could get IB into the middle schools."

Alternatives

Although WJCC doesn't have any true magnet programs, options have emerged over the years. The IB program is one at the elementary level, the other is the Pathways program, new this year to Warhill High School.

As with James River, the division provides transportation for students who opt into the Warhill program from all over the county. In its first year, the program was an innovation of WJCC with the help of two Virginia Department of Education grants.

"The innovation grants are really taking a look at traditional high school and turning it on it's side or head depending on the program and making it more accessible and personal for each individual student," Overkamp-Smith said.

Pathways, which focuses on hands-on activities, group work and career preparation, will extend to the sophomore class at Warhill and will be in place for both freshman classes at Jamestown and Lafayette high schools next year.

The focus of each program will be different at each of the three schools, Overkamp-Smith said. As with the Warhill program, out-of-zone students can apply to whichever interests them most, and will therefore need transportation. The expansion of the Pathways program means the division needs more buses and routes.

"That's an issue they're trying to address for next year, it makes an already complicated transportation route trickier," Overkamp-Smith said.

Expanding IB by adding a Middle Years Programme, which targets grades 6 to 10 in the middle and high schools, was brought up again when discussions surrounding the fourth middle school started years ago.

As planning for the school came to fruition, creating a magnet program was tossed around very early on, Overkamp-Smith said, but ultimately has been dropped from consideration.

The fourth middle school at the site of the James Blair annex is expected to open in September 2018. It will emphasize 21st century learning which focuses on student collaboration, project-based learning and technology. That opening will cause a transportation headache of its own when the school board takes on redistricting next spring to accommodate the new school.

Larson said she would have liked the program to extend through middle and high school for her daughters, but the elementary program established a foundation for them regardless.

But, she said, then again, "high school seems to be ever-evolving," pointing to the Pathways program. And the fourth middle school, "it's going to be a unique school with what it's going to offer."

Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

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