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International Baccalaureate students explore new horizons

SPRING HILL — The time had come to talk metaphysics, and Springstead High School teacher Kathleen Long had an analogy to share.

"I can't go back into that filing cabinet and pull out a box of love and justice, but none of you would deny that they exist," Long told the class. "That's the metaphysical world."

With that, the students started reading from the second act of Shakespeare's The Tempest.

By the time the Theory of Knowledge/Humanities course had ended Thursday, the class had traveled through time and space, following a thread linking the Spanish explorers, the Roman hero Aeneas, and Aldous Huxley's dystopian classic, Brave New World, all in the context of metaphysics.

When talk turned to Huxley, Long sighed at the sheer possibilities.

"I'd love to read that in this class," she said. "Everything he wrote has come true in our world. I don't want to get into that now, but we will later. Definitely."

• • •

Long's class is one stop in a brave new world of sorts for Springstead — the school's new International Baccalaureate program.

The 13 juniors will be the first to graduate with an IB diploma. Springstead joins 65 other schools in Florida to offer the program, the only one in Hernando County.

To get a sense of what the IB program means for students, think Advanced Placement courses stepped up a notch and offered through a global prism.

"I think a worldly perspective is the best way to put it," said Cliff Wagner, the school's IB coordinator.

Here's how it works:

Students apply during the eighth grade and are accepted based on grades, FCAT scores and a personal interview. Though it's not considered a magnet program, students from throughout the county can apply.

They take pre-IB courses during their freshman and sophomore years that provide an honors-level core curriculum and prepare students for the rigors of the IB diploma program that begins in 11th grade, Wagner said.

The students are warned that the program will require a work ethic and dedication of time at the highest levels, he said.

"We use the ninth- and 10th-grade classes to get them ready for those demands," Wagner said. "How to study, how to organize their time, how to adjust to the academics so they can participate in the extracurricular activities, too."

The coursework emphasizes world literature and the arts. Translated works by international authors are standard fare.

In math and science, students are graded not only on their grasp of a subject such as statistics, but also on how they apply that knowledge to solve in real-world scenarios.

In the 12th grade, the students' exams, essays and other work is sent to moderators throughout the world who grade the submissions using a standardized rubric. A moderator in Spain grading the work of students in Russia uses the same standards as an American moderator evaluating work from South Africa.

The goal is to bring more than 754,000 IB students at 2,734 schools in 138 countries into a sort of global, one-room schoolhouse.

St. Petersburg High School was one of the first three schools in Florida to earn an IB program. By 1992, there were 15. Now, about 25 percent of the IB diplomas in the world come from the Sunshine State, Fussell said.

Students often earn full scholarships and can attain sophomore status by end of their first college semester.

The IB program started in the 1960s as a way to give the children of diplomats and international business executives a credential that could be accepted at colleges and universities in their home country. Today, it's one of the most respected accomplishments in high school academics, said Bill Fussell, executive director of the Florida League of IB Schools.

"Colleges are at a point now where, instead of having to ask what IB is and what are students capable of, they are asking, 'How can we get more of these students to come to our school?' " Fussell said.

Demanding courses

Sarah Head of Spring Hill already has international ambitions.

The 16-year-old aspiring novelist hopes to land a spot at Oxford University and says the IB program will get the admissions office of the esteemed school in England to notice her.

"This is definitely a pathway if I want to accomplish my goal of attending even a semester there," Head said. "They'll realize I'm on the same level as the international students."

The IB world literature class is one of her favorites so far. She appreciates exposure to translated works such as La casa de los espíritus, or The House of the Spirits, by Chilean-American author Isabel Allende. The story chronicles how four families cope with the post-colonial upheaval that grips that country.

"That means a lot to me, because I love literature as a whole and it makes me better as a person," Head said.

As promised, the work is tough and time consuming, students said.

The class of 13 juniors started as 22 freshmen two years ago. Some students began to drop out when they experienced firsthand the demands of the pre-IB courses that would prepare them for the start of the diploma program in their junior year.

Freshman year means honors history and biology and Spanish I and II. Sophomores take physics and chemistry. Head said some of her peers couldn't handle the independence that comes with the program. She admits she had her own bouts of self-doubt.

"When you realize you have to work harder and things aren't coming as easily as they used to, you start to question yourself," she said.

"A lot of people thought it was going to be ridiculously hard," said Sean D'Amico, 16, of Spring Hill. "It's challenging ... ."

"But not impossible," said 16-year-old Amelia Hartzell.

And it's worth it, said Colleen Pulawski, 16, who still finds time to serve as president of the school's Key Club and hit the stage with the thespian club.

"I feel like I'm learning so much, like my head is bursting with knowledge," Pulawski said. "I've never really been interested in English before this year, and now it's one of my favorites. That's why I'm enjoying the program so much. I feel like it's expanding my horizons."

The idea of a teacher halfway around the world grading his work is an intriguing one for Seon Lee, a 17-year-old Spring Hill resident born in Korea.

"That will be cool," Lee said. "Different cultures might see things differently."

Greater challenge

Springstead's IB program has its roots in a desire to offer that kind of academic rigor and variety, Wagner said.

In the mid to late 1990s, the school started laying the groundwork for its Advanced Placement Academy and now offers 22 AP courses.

Providing the IB opportunity seemed the next logical step, Wagner said.

"We felt we weren't addressing the needs of that high-end group of students who really wanted some greater challenge," Wagner said.

The application process for the school to gain IB accreditation took more than three years. Springstead teachers traveled to training sessions from Georgia to California.

Jackie May teaches English in the IB program. May, who taught as an adjunct professor at Pasco-Hernando Community College and is now in her sixth year at Springstead, admits she often feels like a student again as she studies international literature before she shares the work with her class.

"You're not just falling back on prior knowledge and what you're comfortable with, so it's a challenge," May said. "Sometimes it seems like a lot of extra work for the same pay, but it's rewarding to have the students respond at a higher level. You're like, wow, they can do this, and that's encouraging."

Long, the humanities teacher and a Springstead veteran, agreed.

"The students can easily be one step ahead of the teacher," she said. "And the answers are not in the back of the book."

IB is just one more way to meet the diverse needs of students, said Springstead principal Susan Duval.

"It's always been the overriding mission, to advance our students in every way possible in the world of academics," she said. "From vocational to ROTC to fine arts, it's been a continuous schoolwide push."

The significance of blazing the IB trail for the school and the county is not lost on the Class of 2011.

"I feel like we're representing what the school's capable of," Sarah Head said. "It just shows we can take it a step further, and that's why I want us to be successful so badly. I want us to be a good representation for this school."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Fast facts

On the Web

To find out more about the International Baccalaureate program, www.ibo.org and www.flibs.org.

International Baccalaureate students explore new horizons 10/24/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 24, 2009 2:25pm]

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