IB Program Enrollment to Rise in Sag Harbor’s Pierson High School

Hope Brindle argues the issues during an IB history class, taught by Ruth White-Dunne, during a lesson on how World War II was seen through the lens of Japanese school children's history textbooks. Christine Sampson photos

What began as a controversial program at Pierson High School five years ago has firmly taken root at the school and is poised to skyrocket next year, data released by the school shows.

The International Baccalaureate program, a rigorous set of classes and academic standards that is administered by a global non-profit organization, was founded in Switzerland in 1962 when a group of teachers created a college preparatory program for the children of diplomats and businessmen who were attending schools abroad.

Today, Pierson High School is one of 4,655 schools across the world to offer an IB program.

“I’m a big believer in it,” said Michael Guinan, the Pierson assistant principal who coordinates the IB program, and who himself was an IB student. “The impact I see is that it prepares kids to take full ownership of their learning, figure out what they want to know, and give them the tools to pursue that knowledge, and that prepares them well for life and for higher education.”

The program is picking up steam. Six seniors are enrolled in the diploma program this year, but among juniors, 16 are on the diploma track. In the sophomore class, 32 will enter the program next year.

IB largely replaced the Advanced Placement at Pierson, although a handful of AP courses are still available, and students can sign up to take AP tests without having taken the full course in school. Next year, the number of IB exams Pierson students will take — projected at 210 — will surpass the number of AP exams students took at the peak of the AP program’s enrollment, which was 195.

“There were many people who did not want us to switch from AP to IB,” Pierson principal Jeff Nichols said. “As with any type of change, you have to go through a process of having people accept that what you had was good, but there might be an even better way to do it.”

The IB Model

The diploma program is a two-year commitment that mandates certain courses, but students can also choose to take individual classes outside of the diploma because of Pierson’s “open enrollment” policy.

The diploma program requires six subject-specific courses over a student’s junior and senior years, along with a specific course in theory of knowledge, an in-depth research essay, and completion of creative, active, and service commitments within the school or community at large.

Courses include standard and higher-level options in English and math, along with IB history, biology, chemistry, Spanish, French, physics, art, music, computer science, and environmental systems and society.

For diploma candidates, the highest possible cumulative score of all exams and essays is 45. According to Mr. Guinan, of the 12 students who earned the IB diploma last year, ten scored at 31 or higher — above the international average. “That tells us that we’re doing a very good job,” he said.

RELATED: Read Pierson athlete Isabel Peters’s IB story

Perspectives from Within

For Ella Parker, the 2017 salutatorian, IB has been rigorous and sometimes intimidating, but it “has honestly changed the way I look at myself as a scholar.”

“I have learned more about my strengths, weaknesses and everything in-between,” she said. “I have a much deeper understanding of myself after these past two years.”

Ella said she likes the way the program encourages students to think for themselves. “For the first time in my life, I started to individualize myself from other people and from other students,” she said.

A classmate, Aris Witty, said he likes the way the classes and exams empower students “to take control of the curriculum.” But sometimes, he said, it was hard to balance homework with other activities.

“There was a period of a few months in the beginning of this year where at least once a week I would have to go directly from school to Math League, right from Math League to sailing, from sailing to Model United Nations, and from Model United Nations to Boy Scouts, ultimately not even starting my homework until nine at night and working well into the morning hours,”Aris said.

Reflecting on their experiences as IB diploma students, Kerrie Vila and Arlena Burns, who graduated from Pierson in 2016, both said it has benefited them tremendously.

“I think ‘Theory of Knowledge’ really prepared me to write a college essay,” Ms. Vila, now a student at Northwestern University, said. “As much as there were times that I hated that class, and I hated the extended essay, it really prepared me for the end of first quarter. I had a 16-page paper in political science due and it didn’t even phase me. I kind of just sat there and wrote it, whereas I had friends who had never written more than six or seven pages.”

RELATED: Watch a video of a “Theory of Knowledge” classroom activity here

Ms. Burns, who opted for the IB program “in order to be a more competitive college applicant,” said it has taught her “how to think abstractly, rather than just regurgitating information.”

“This is because in the diploma program you’re tested on what you’ve learned via short answer problems or essays, rather than multiple choice questions, which don’t always prove that you have a complete understanding of the concept,” Ms. Burns, now a student at the University of Virginia, said.

The program is more rigorous for teachers, too. Ruth White-Dunne, a history teacher, says it’s more work to prepare lessons, but she enjoys the creativity the program allows her.

“For me the worst part of teaching is the laborious kind of grading, the behavior management,” she said. “I never dreamed of being in front of a class lecturing. I like that it’s a two-year program — we go a mile deep instead of a mile wide. We can really explore social, political, economic and all the different elements of history instead of doing the chronology of a survey class. This is more exciting to teach.”

Enrollment in the full IB diploma program, as shown by the solid line, is trending upward after some up-and-down movement over the past five years. The percentage of juniors and seniors taking at least one IB class, as shown by the dotted line, has held steady, although the number of exams they will collectively take will rise to 210 next year from 116 this year. Image by Chris Lester

Problems with IB?

The IB program is not without criticism.

Ms. White-Dunne said Pierson could benefit from having a resource room for special education students who take IB classes. “I think they have a hard time budgeting time and managing resources,” she said. “I think we can work on that. We’re a small school and we’re capable of great things here.”

Ella Parker said some classes would benefit from block scheduling, which is the practice of planning longer class periods while reducing the number of classes per day a student would take. “For example, my art class is a 40-minute class that occurs every day, which isn’t nearly enough time to get supplies out, then paint, draw, et cetera, and finally clean up in time,” Ella said. “The creative process takes more time than I thought. So, if we had block scheduling … this problem could be avoided.”

Ms. Burns had a couple of general complaints: “It is more difficult to get college credit from IB classes and you get no additional credit from universities for receiving the full diploma. However, if given the chance I would still do the diploma program again.”

Then there’s the matter of national pushback — with roots close to home.

Lisa McLoughlin, a real estate agent from Long Island, founded the website truthaboutib.com, which says it finds “next to nothing favorable about the program and make no bones about it.” In 2011, Ms. McLoughlin wrote in a comment on a Sag Harbor Express editorial in which she described the IB program as “nothing but globalist ‘themes’” with “absolutely no evidence that these programs improve student academic performance.”

Although the “Truth About IB” website says it has not been updated in some time, its claim that more colleges provide credit for AP exams than for IB participation appears to be accurate, according to a report by Jay Mathews, The Washington Post’s education columnist.

The Cost of Excellence

Another criticism of the Pierson program is the costs, which some, like Ms. McLoughlin, have argued are too high.

According to Mr. Nichols, applying to offer IB was a two-year process that costs $8,000, and the annual fee to offer the diploma program is $11,370. He said Pierson spent between $25,000 and $30,000 during the two years leading up to the launch of the program for the professional development. Each time a teacher needs training, it costs between $1,700 and $2,100, he added.

There are also costs associated with student enrollment. For each student who registers to take a course, the school pays $168. For each exam a student takes, the school pays $116. Mr. Nichols said the exam fee does not differ much from the cost of an AP exam, although there is no registration fee for AP classes. The district has $24,360 budgeted next year for the burst of student interest in taking the exams, which is projected at 210 exams, up from 116 this year.

Whereas some districts pass the registration and exam fees on to the students, Mr. Nichols said he supports Sag Harbor’s decision to pay for the fees from district funds.

“If the students were required to pay for them, it would probably influence their decision to take the courses,” he said. “To me, that dilemma is not consistent with what public school stands for, which is leveling the playing field and giving each student the same opportunity regardless of economic standing.”

IB Versus AP

East Hampton School District twice considered bringing in the IB program, according to its high school principal, Adam Fine, but ultimately decided against it.

“The Board of Education did not want to make the financial commitment for the program. This was due to the 2-percent tax cap and other budgeting priorities,” Mr. Fine said in an email.

Instead, East Hampton High School has become one of about 15 schools on Long Island to offer the AP Capstone program, widely viewed as the College Board’s answer to the IB program.

Both programs “attempt to develop a deeper understanding of topics,” Mr. Fine said. “Specifically, the focus is on the development of critical thinking and inquiry skills. … Differences revolve around the required program and courses and ultimately the cost.”

IB’s Future at Pierson

Pierson administrators were in the midst of applying to offer the IB Middle Years program, which would extend IB into the middle school, when the organization changed its program structure. Mr. Guinan said the district would determine in the next few weeks whether Pierson would continue pursuing its candidacy in the Middle Years program. The future may also hold additional class offerings and scheduling options for students wishing to take IB classes or pursue the diploma.

Mr. Guinan said growth is becoming organic.

“The benefits become obvious and people just get a better handle on the commitments, and see that it is realistic and worthwhile,” he said. “That’s why you see more students raising their hands.”