Lee County High to introduce intensive college prep program

May. 21, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

 Lee County students will soon have access to yet another program that challenges their intellect and also looks good on a college application.

In the 2014-15 school year, Lee County High School will introduce an International Baccalaureate, or IB, program. The classes are often compared to advanced placement (AP) classes, and while both are rigorous enough to warrant credit from many colleges, students can choose to take AP classes in as many or as few subjects as they want. With IB, students can do likewise or sign up for a multi-year program that grants a special diploma.

"We need to provide more rigor at the high school level, and IB makes perfect sense," Lee County High Principal Greg Batten said.

Lee County Schools Superintendent Jeff Moss said the timing is right because many middle school students have been taking high school-level classes in the last few years. That head start has provided the strong academic foundation needed to handle the rigors of an IB education, he said.

Batten is leaving Lee County at the end of this year to become principal at Scotland County High School, but his replacement Kenna Wilson said last week that she feels more than up to challenge.

Wilson has been principal at SanLee Middle School since its founding in 2008, where she oversaw the establishment of many of the advanced classes Moss touted as preparing incoming high school students for the challenges of advanced classes. She doesn't have experience with IB, but not many do; fewer than 800 high schools in the United States, and only 30 in North Carolina, offer the curriculum — which originated in Switzerland in the 1960s as a college-prep system that would be standard in any country that uses it — hence the name International Baccalaureate.

Soon, though, Lee County will bring North Carolina's number of participating high schools up to 31 and possibly more. Andy Bryan, the district's associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction, and who will become superintendent after Moss leaves this summer, said Southern Lee High School is looking at instituting its own IB program and might be able to do so a few years after Lee County High does.

"Pursuing IB is just furthering our goal of preparing and enhancing students for when they graduate," Bryan said.

Dr. Lynn Smith, chairman of the Lee County Board of Education, agreed.

"This is taking our education up a notch for sure," Smith said. "The IB curriculum is clearly more difficult than anything we have to offer. ... When somebody graduates high school with an IB diploma, colleges look really well on that. It's got a great reputation and is well regarded across the country."

Bryan added that students will probably be able to pick and choose individual IB classes to take, similar to the AP curriculum, but that they'll be encouraged to commit to the whole program. Getting an IB diploma requires students to pass six college-level classes, take a course on philosophy and write an essay before capping off their studies with a 4,000-word research paper, which is similar in length to what many undergraduate classes require.

Many schools around the country only offer AP or IB, but Bryan and Smith said they'd like local students to have both options.

"It's like a menu of opportunities for our students to choose from, and we feel good about that many options, and the different options," Bryan said.

Batten said offering both would be best for students, especially those aiming for admission to a selective college.

"Wherever the student wants to go, we can accommodate that," Batten said. "... I envision Lee County High School having kids taking everything there is to offer at the AP level and also taking advantage of the IB program, and that will help a lot at the next level."

One other reason to offer both, Bryan said — and one of the reasons school officials feel confident that students will participate in the IB program — is that interest in AP classes has nearly doubled in recent years. It's unclear if the actual number of students taking classes has increased, or if students are taking more AP classes per person —or a combination of the two — because the district only keeps track of the total number of students enrolled in its multitude of AP classes, and not how many individual students participate in one or more. Whatever's happening, though, the numbers are up.

In the 2010-11 school year, students took 569 AP classes. The next year, that number rose to 849. This year, it's 984. The results of this year's tests won't be in for several more months, but Bryan said that last year, 60 percent of students who took an AP test scored at least a 3, which is generally the minimum grade (on a scale of 1-5) required for college credit.

Batten said he likes the direction of his school, and he wishes he could be around to see the IB program instituted, especially because teachers and administrators seem enthusiastic about it. He and about a dozen others traveled to Rice University earlier this semester to learn more about the curriculum, he said, and they all came back eager to get started.

"It is going to help your kids get into college; it'll help them earn credits for college," Batten said. "But more important, it's going to prepare them to think critically."