TAMPA — In some ways, the 2009 school year came to a bitter end for King High School, which slipped from a B to a D in the state grading system.
But in the race that matters most to some parents, the school trumped the competition this year, with more students admitted into Ivy League colleges than any other school in the district.
King will be sending three students to Harvard this fall, plus two to Princeton and two to Brown. No other Hillsborough school is sending more than a single student to each of those top-tier institutions, said district spokesman Steve Hegarty.
Other King grads are headed to Cornell, the University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern, New York University and the U.S. Naval Academy.
Credit for that list goes to the school's International Baccalaureate program, said guidance specialist Gonzalo Garcia.
"This year, it happens to be that all of these are IB students," he said. "Last year, we had two going to Stanford."
Garcia said the IB curriculum's rigorous mix of foreign languages, math, science, literature and history attracts students with an appetite for knowledge.
"I'd be mistaken if I didn't say some of them were seeking it as a steppingstone to these competitive institutions," he said. "But some of them are choosing it simply for the challenge of the academic pursuit."
King High valedictorian Xi Yu, who recently graduated with a district-topping 8.16 weighted grade point average, said she has been aiming for Harvard since elementary school. That sense of ambition was the norm in this year's IB group at King.
"In order to get into the IB program, you have to have some inherent sense of ambitiousness," she said. "In the end, for our class, I think the competition is what made us progress as far as we have. We just pushed."
Thejal Srikumar, who plans to study biology and music at Harvard, said that powerful group dynamic encouraged students to dig deep and get excited about learning.
"I really do think the IB program is special in that it teaches us to think differently," she said. "I think it prepares us on more levels, especially when it comes to writing and speaking."
Garcia said students following King's regular curriculum typically attend local colleges in greater numbers, while around 25 percent of IB students leave the state.
But he said there's plenty of ambition in the school's traditional program, which usually sends one or two students a year to the Ivy League schools .
At a recent School Board presentation, King students praised that traditional program, which aims to boost college readiness via the AVID counseling program and personalized "smaller learning communities" within the ninth grade.
"They say ninth grade is the most important year, because it sets your foundation," said Devante Powell, who will be a sophomore next year. "At King, freshmen are treated like seniors."
"If I didn't have the smaller learning communities and AVID, I wouldn't be as organized as I am now or as successful in my classes," said classmate Alicia Hills.
Board members say they liked what they saw.
"I see self-confidence, I see personal pride, I see happiness," said board member Jennifer Faliero. "Those are the things that will get you where you need to go in your future."
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400.