Groton schools seek to expand International Baccalaureate program enrollment

Groton — As the Groton Public Schools try to improve academic offerings and compete in an era of school choice, the International Baccalaureate program at Robert E. Fitch High School inevitably enters the debate.

The International Baccalaureate, or IB, is a nonprofit educational foundation that offers four programs of international curriculum, including a diploma program, to students ages 16 to 19.

The curriculum includes six subjects and asks students to "reflect on the nature of knowledge, complete independent research and undertake a project that often involves community service," according to the IB website

Schools need authorization by the IB organization to offer any of the programs, which are recognized internationally.

Fitch High School offers the two-year diploma program, but allows students to take individual classes as well.

Superintendent Michael Graner wants to create an IB magnet program to draw students from neighboring districts and even potentially expand it to other grades.

Supporters said the program raises the performance of all students regardless of race, parents' income or parents' education level, effectively leveling the playing field.

"I can't say how much it has helped me," Alison Wilkinson wrote in an email to her former teacher at Fitch. Wilkinson earned an IB diploma there last year and attends the University of Liverpool. "I know that the learning and thinking styles that I have developed during IB will help me succeed if not flourish here."

IB was founded in 1968 in Switzerland. Students in the two-year IB diploma program take classes in language and literature, a foreign language, math, science, social studies, art and a class called "theory of knowledge," similar to philosophy.

Students also complete a 4,000-word essay and perform community service.

The diploma program has graduated a handful of student in prior years, but enrollment is growing.

Last year, Fitch had four diploma students and 27 other seniors who graduated with one to six IB classes.

This year, 10 juniors and seniors are enrolled in the diploma program, with 80 other students taking individual IB classes.

"It is the best preparation to get students to and through college, I think, because it engages students in extended essays, a deep understanding of the connections between science, English, mathematics and social studies, and it provides students a world view appropriate for the 21st century," Graner said.

Others said the program is expensive to offer and under-enrolled. In 2013, IB was considered for potential closure when the Board of Education was trying to close a budget gap.

"If we utilize it further, do we take away resources from the college prep programs? We're losing enrollment to magnet schools ," said Scott Aument, chairman and co-founder of Groton Advocates for Tax Efficiency, or GATE, who is running for the Groton Board of Education. "It could be a great program, but it's not taking hold."

"IB demands that students develop strong critical thinking, writing and time-management skills," said Kelley Donovan, IB diploma coordinator at Fitch. "These skills translate into a strong launch for higher education and for life. Since IB is global, student proficient marks on the IB assessments means that they are ready when they find themselves small fish in that big pond of higher education."

School officials said IB also helps Fitch stand out. In 2015, U.S. News & World Report reviewed 29,070 U.S. public high schools and awarded rankings to 58 Connecticut schools, including Fitch High School. 

The top-ranked school in the state was the Connecticut International Baccalaureate Academy in East Hartford, where Donovan previously worked.

The IB program costs about $14,000 annually for testing, $12,000 for the annual fee for the district and $15,000 to $18,000 for teacher and administrator training.

This year's budget also includes $331,000 for teaching salaries associated with IB, which covers a portion of the salaries of 17 teachers who also teach other classes at Fitch.

Graner said cutting the program would not result in savings, because the students would still have to be taught, Graner said.

"It costs a lot of money to enroll the students and keep the teacher up to the specifications the program requires," Aument said. "GATE is very concerned about the fiscal conservatism. I've been told it's a good program which it probably is, but it's underutilized."

The program also requires multiple tasks, like extended essays, so students have many opportunities over the two years to show what they know, Donovan said.

"For kids who aren't great multiple-choice test takers, IB can level that playing field as well," she said.

School board member Katrina Fitzgerald said her son, now 19, took IB classes in English and history and now attends the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. He wasn't a straight-A student, she said.

"He wasn't told what he had to do," she said. "He had to back up what he was doing," she said. He learned to develop arguments and see issues from many perspectives, she said. 

During a class last week in the Theory of Knowledge, the topic was censorship. 

Instructor Donovan posed a question: Should Congress have the right to deny an artist money from the National Endowment for the Arts, if Congress considers the work sacrilegious or offensive?

"No," said Jacob Carlson, 17. "Because it's not the people in Congress." They don't represent the average person or anything like the citizens they supposedly represent, he said. Why should Congress decide?

Sam Kokomoor, 17, disagreed. If Congress doesn't represent the public, why should it get to do anything? "The next step would be to say they don't have the right to pass bills," he said.

Classmates Carlson and Kokomoor argue continuously yet remain friends, demonstrating a key skill the program teaches, Donovan said — how to collaborate, listen and respectfully disagree.

Theory of knowledge, a core class of the IB program, challenges students to explain how they know what they know, rather than recite it.

It also requires them to hear, and even appreciate, positions opposite their own.

"What I tell students is an argument has winners and losers," Donovan said. "But a discussion doesn't."

d.straszheim@theday.com

Twitter: @DStraszheim

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