West High School Adds an International Diploma Option

In fall 2011, West High's nearly two-decade quest for International Baccalaureate membership will come full circle when it officially becomes an IB program school.

"International Baccalaureate is an international program; the curriculum is worldwide," explains Shannon Siebe, IB program coordinator for West. "It's put together by educators worldwide. The mission is to encourage students to become active, compassionate, life-long learners, and to understand that other people with their differences can also be right."

Siebe says West first considered IB back in the 1990s under former Principal Donna Wright, now an assistant superintendent for Knox County Schools. She says the program was always coveted by West educators, yet out of reach, primarily due to high front-end costs from an involved application process and teacher training.

Two years ago, however, West received unexpected federal Title One funding (based on the school's percentage of low-income students). And Siebe says current Principal Greg Roach decided to ask permission from county school administrators—including Wright—to use a portion of West's Title One monies to apply for IB.

The process began in fall of 2009, and includes an extensive round of interviews conducted by IB officials with parents, students, and instructors, and scrutiny of curriculum planning as well as West facilities.

Siebe says the program—open to juniors and seniors—will offer two options: that of the full diploma candidate, which will see participating students receive an IB diploma in addition to their regular high school diploma; and that of the certificate student, i.e. any student who wants the cachet of an IB credit on their transcript.

The full diploma route, however, isn't for the faint of heart. "Full diploma kids have to be highly motivated," Siebe says. "It pushes them outside of their comfort zone. It's usually kids from the honors track, but not always."

Diploma candidates must compete six courses, choosing one from each of six different groups: Language A1 (English); Language A2 (Spanish, German, French, Latin); Individuals and Society (History of the Americas, Geography, Psychology); Experimental Sciences (Biology, Chemistry, Environmental Systems and Societies); Mathematics (Math Studies, Math Standard Level and Higher Level); Arts (Visual Arts).

Prior to graduation, they must also complete a 4,000-word research essay—a project for which they will receive an essay mentor. And they are required to complete 150 hours of CAS—the IB acronym for community involvement, i.e. Creativity, Action and Service. "So they're also focused on becoming a well-rounded person, and not just on academics," says Siebe.

And finally, IB diploma candidates have to complete a Theory of Knowledge course. Siebe describes it as "a course on how we learn, why we learn, and helping students develop their own individual theory of knowledge."

But be warned: Kids who want to go the full diploma route will have to through Siebe first, via personal interview. "They need to be ready for the rigor," she says. "The rest is for anyone. Everyone is encouraged to enroll in an IB course. Our long-term goal at West is that every student leave the school with at least one Advanced Placement or IB credit on their transcript. And we're only going to be adding more IB courses over the next five to 10 years."

But what's it all for? Well, in addition to the broad, rigorous, and more culturally diverse education the IB program sets out to provide its students, Siebe says that IB credits are often looked upon favorably by colleges, some of which will give class credit, and some of which will go so far as to grant sophomore status to IB diploma recipients. Siebe says information on some of the colleges that credit IB transcripts can be found at IBO.org.

In the meantime, she says, IB is just good preparation. "If they achieved an IB diploma, they're going to be extremely prepared for college," she says. "That first paper in college is going to be small beans."