International Baccalaureate Introduced at West High

More curriculum enrichment at Knox high schools

Amid all the fanfare over plans for launching a new high school next year with a science, technology, engineering, and math emphasis, another noteworthy new high school program is also due to start at an existing school.

That would be the International Baccalaureate program, for which West High School has been preparing for the past year to offer to a select group of its students, as well as transfers from other schools. There's nothing new about the IB program, which got its start in Switzerland in the 1960s. Now headquartered in Cardiff, Wales, the program is in place at nearly 3,000 schools in 138 countries, including about 700 in the United States.

But despite the high esteem in which the program is held by school officials locally, West is the first high school in Knox County and only the 11th in Tennessee to have risen to the challenge of putting it in place. That esteem is based not only on the program's rigorous curriculum, but also on the extra values it's intended to instill in students who earn an IB diploma. These start with a stated aim "to develop inquiring, knowledgeable, and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect."

In addition to taking courses in six required fields (English, a foreign language, math, science, social studies, and the arts), every student must also take a thought-provoking course entitled Theory of Knowledge, which addresses different spheres of learning and the different ways in which people learn. Every course in the U.S. starts in the junior year in high school and extends over two years. End-of-course exams are mostly essay-like and graded not locally but overseas. Beyond that, to earn an IB diploma every student must successfully complete a 4,000-word research paper that puts a premium on originality.

"The International Baccalaureate program is known for its rigorous, high standards and is highly regarded by universities," says Lynn Cagle, associate dean of UT's College of Education. "I think it's a real step forward for it to be offered in Knoxville."

West High's interest in the IB program dates back to the 1990s, when its principal was Donna Wright, now the Knox school system's assistant superintendent for instruction. But the school didn't have the resources to implement it until 2009, when it received federal stimulus funds after being designated as a Title I school based on the diversity of its enrollment.

A former biology teacher, Shannon Siebe, was named full-time coordinator of the effort to become an IB school. Preparations included sending 14 West High teachers to week-long training programs at various sites around the country; the teachers then worked extensively to set up course outlines that adhere to IBO guidelines. Final authorization is still pending, but Siebe is confident it will be obtained in time to launch the program next fall.

She anticipates that about 30 rising West High juniors will enroll in the first year. A second cohort of 30 the following year would bring the total enrollment to 60. And she believes the school has the capacity to take up to 50 additional transfer students from other Knox high schools. (More information about the program and how to apply for a transfer is available on the West High website,

The profile of prospective IB students, Siebe says, is that they "need to be highly motivated and ready to be challenged." Admission will be selective and based on the applicant's math, reading, and writing test scores. But Siebe stresses that, "This is not an elitist program, not just for very top students."

While Siebe expects all the future IB enrollees will already be college-bound, she believes the IB program can make a big difference in their college graduation rates, especially for those in the middle of the pack. She cites a study of a sample group of students, tracked through their college years, who had the same PSAT score as high school sophomores.

"Of the IB students in this group, 88 percent graduated from college compared to only 32 percent of the non-IB students," she claims. This disparity seems extreme, given the fact that IB candidates, and presumably their non-IB peers, are expected to take honor-level courses during their freshman and sophomore years in some combination of algebra, biology, and English. In any event, these courses prepare them for the end-of-course state exams that all Tennessee high school students must pass in order to graduate. So the IB students will get a Tennessee diploma as well.

Beyond the benefits to IB students, Siebe believes that the extensive teacher preparation will strengthen the quality of instruction at West High.

"The IB teachers will be teaching other students as well, and the strategies that they are learning in their IB training will trickle down to other courses," she says. Moreover, students who don't enroll in the full IB diploma program are still eligible to take one or more IB courses, for which many universities offer advanced placement or course credit on the same basis as standard AP courses.

West's initiative in offering IB, at a start-up cost of about $80,000, is another feather in the cap of a school that until recently was on a state list of schools targeted for improvement. Under the leadership of Principal Greg Roach, West's graduation rate has risen from 77 percent to 87 percent over the past three years, and it's been removed from the state target list. Introduction of the International Baccalaureate program can only add to the improvement.