DOVER — A year ago this month, there was an academic stampede on Gallagher Road.
The new Strawberry Crest High School hadn't yet opened, but the promise of a fourth campus for the popular International Baccalaureate program in Hillsborough County prompted a flood of applications.
"We had 360 kids apply for the program last year, and that was without a building standing," said Tiffany Ewell, assistant principal for the magnet program at Strawberry Crest. Just 147 were accepted into the program within the 1,400-student school, based on grades, test scores and an essay.
That stampede may soon repeat itself, as the county opens a new round of applications from Tuesday through Jan. 25 for next fall's magnet programs.
Assuming Strawberry Crest gains official status as an IB school by the fall of 2011, students at the school will embark on what is widely seen as the global standard for a challenging high school curriculum. It includes college-bound courses in math, science, language and history, plus a full-year research project and the mind-bending Theory of Knowledge class.
Freshmen said they were taken aback by the rigorous, pre-IB regimen.
"It was a surprise. It was a shock," said Joshua Cockream, 14, of Valrico. "You get more freedom, but you also get more responsibility."
On a recent morning just before the winter break, students were hard at work preparing for IB diploma tests and final projects they won't face for two or three years.
"When we get to junior year, we have one year to write a 4,000-word research paper," said Stephanie Presendieu, a 14-year-old freshman from Valrico. "They're preparing us for it now."
In English class, students were busy deconstructing thesis statements. In science, they were doing a lab involving hydrogen peroxide and potatoes.
"This is where the magic happens," pre-IB biology teacher Bill Ward told the class. "You're going to see the effect of different concentrations on enzyme action."
He taught with a sense of urgency and a dollop of humor, peppering his lesson with real-world anecdotes: how an aspirin overdose might affect enzymes, what happens when you run a fever.
Then students pulled on their goggles and got to work measuring and analyzing. In case they needed a reminder of their ambitious schedule, Ward offered one.
"You have no time to goof around," he said. "Work together."
More than 1,600 students are enrolled in the IB programs at King, Robinson and Hillsborough high schools and the pre-IB program at Strawberry Crest. The county district also offers IB programs at McFarlane Park Elementary and Williams Middle School in Tampa.
In addition to an ambitious slate of high school courses leading to exams, the international curriculum requires each student to complete a substantial community service project.
"The program prepares them to not only (develop) the intellectual and academic requirements to make a difference, but challenges them to step out of their comfort zone and do so," said Anthony Jones, assistant principal and IB coordinator at Hillsborough High. "It's based on community service and making the world a better place."
And unlike the Advanced Placement program, students in Hillsborough County don't have the option of trying out a single IB class.
With two or three students lined up for every spot, the seats are simply too valuable to use on trial runs, said Ewell, the assistant principal at Strawberry Crest. Every student takes the full program and shoots for the IB diploma.
Students at the school follow their own schedule with longer, 90-minute classes, she said. While they take electives with students in the school's traditional academic program, most of their time over four years is spent with their IB classmates.
Developing a strong group identity helps students to adjust to heavier workloads, said Estela Cubano, who teaches pre-IB world history and government.
"Because of the level of intensity, they're going to have to read and understand more," she added.
Presendieu, who hopes to become a structural engineer and design office buildings, said most students were used to working hard, but have never been in classes full of equally diligent peers.
"In your old school, you might have been the smartest one in your class," she said. "Here, everyone is the smartest one in the class."
Kelly Shirley, whose daughter attended the IB program at Williams Middle School, said she worried that the new program at Strawberry Crest might get off to a slow start.
"Would we be getting the same educators?" Shirley asked. "Would they be of a high caliber, compared to the other programs?"
She was pleased to learn that several of those teachers — including Cubano, Ward and English teacher Maggie Allen — came from Hillsborough's established IB programs. As a parent and vice president of the magnet program's support group, she is impressed.
"There's no time for slumping at all," Shirley said, referring to the "senior slump" in traditional high school programs. "It's just keep going until you graduate."
Those teachers have gone out of their way to help students rise to the challenge, said 14-year-old Mathew Oberle of Valrico.
"At first, everyone was kind of overwhelmed," he said. "But they're very helpful. Most teachers hold review sessions every day, or whenever you need them."
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400.