St. Paul: Harding High’s IB program is diverse — and demanding

/ 31 March 2012 / jennifer

Mila Koumpilova, Pioneer Press, March 31, 2012 –

On Harding High School senior Abdi Dirie’s bucket list: build an artificial intelligence system. Direct an indie movie and start a charity to fight epilepsy. Help establish a functioning government in war-torn Somalia, which his family left in the 1990s.

But first, this school year’s list: pass college-credit exams in physics, math, film and Japanese. Lead the math and cross country teams. Organize a “Cocoa and Cramming” tutoring blitz to help classmates finish the fall semester strong.

Dirie is in Harding’s International Baccalaureate, or IB, program, which largely explains his hectic senior year. In high schools across the world, IB offers rigorous classes that can yield college credit and a focus on studying foreign languages and cultures.

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Abdi Dirie is photographed through a window on a model he helped make for a project redesigning the Kitty Anderson Youth Science Center space at the Science Museum of Minnesota, Wednesday, March 21, 2012. Dirie leads the Harding High School math and track teams, works part time and helps his Somali immigrant mom care for seven siblings. (Pioneer Press: Chris Polydoroff)

With its largely low-income and minority student population, Harding, on St. Paul’s East Side, flouts the conventional wisdom of IB as a fixture of private and wealthier suburban schools. These days, schools such as Harding are on the frontlines of a national push to engage more students of color and limited means in IB and other advanced coursework, where they have long been significantly outnumbered by white, better-off peers.

As increasingly diverse districts in Minnesota set out to add or expand IB programs, that goal is on school officials’ minds.

“The perception has been that IB is a middle- and upper-class phenomenon, and historically it has been,” said Harold Scott, St. Paul’s head of gifted-and-talented services. “IB is for all students.”

‘IT’S REALLY STRENUOUS’

The demographics at Harding have shifted since the school started offering IB in 1993: Today, 90 percent of its more than 2,000 students are minorities, and almost 90 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. About 45 percent of its students are learning English.

Teachers and administrators scoff at Harding’s reputation as a “rough” school and a narrow focus on the school’s struggle to meet improvement targets under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Last spring, roughly half of 10th-graders here scored proficient in reading, and a quarter of 11th-graders did so in math.

The school has a Japanese program and recently opened its College and Career Center, among the largest in terms of square footage in the country. The Harding IB program is one of three such high school programs in St. Paul.

Only a handful of Harding students each year attain a full IB diploma, an intense undertaking that involves passing six IB exams, completing a 4,000-word research project and putting in at least 150 hours of volunteer work, such as Dirie’s “Cocoa and Cramming” tutoring session.

“IB is very difficult,” he said. “It’s rewarding, but it’s really strenuous on your mind.”

Still, roughly half the students in the school take at least one IB course or one of the accelerated classes that prepare younger students for IB. The number of students who take IB exams for college credit has more than tripled over the past decade, to about 260 last year. Students in IB here fairly closely mirror the demographics of the school.

“Our IB program has the kind of ethnic and racial diversity rarely seen in American IB schools,” said Erik Brandt, the program’s coordinator.

In Dirie’s Theory of Knowledge class on a recent Thursday, 18 of 21 seniors in the room were students of color. “To what extent do material goods shape the identity of people???” a student scribbled on the whiteboard as classmates got into a heated discussion of a viral YouTube video about atrocities in Uganda.

Those higher participation numbers landed Harding on the Washington Post’s Challenge Index, which ranks schools based on advanced coursework participation. In the past five years, scholarship dollars earned by Harding seniors have swelled 300 percent, to more than $12 million last year.

SUPPORT AT HOME SOMETIMES LACKING

Taking advantage of Harding’s IB offerings calls for extra determination, IB counselor Ralph Alexander said. Difficult and time-consuming courses can be tough to juggle with a part-time job or responsibilities in a bustling household. Teachers and students here often hear from graduates that the first year of college is a breeze compared with a senior year chasing an IB diploma.

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Abdi Diri, center, (holding pen) talks to students including Fata Acquoi, center/left) about a project in his International Baccalaureate class at St. Paul’s Harding High School on Wednesday, March 7, 2012. (Pioneer Press: Jean Pieri)

Often the first in their families to graduate from high school or head to college, students can lack support at home.

Student Hlee Vang told Alexander recently that she was stumped for a college essay topic because she was “too busy to be interesting.” Alexander probed a little and learned about Vang’s responsibilities taking care of younger siblings. Soon, she had a title for her essay: “14 Children and No Reality TV Show.”

Because of family upheaval, senior Paying Lee had attended high schools in three states by the time she discovered IB at Harding last year. The diploma program gave her the structure she craved – and at times, it overwhelmed her. In December, she resolved to scrap her college plans and go to beauty school – before rallying to complete her college applications.

Dirie, too, finds ways around the distractions in a West St. Paul home he shares with his mom and seven siblings. He sticks around the school’s College and Career Center to do his homework: a 1,200-word essay for his IB film class or prep for his IB Japanese oral exam.

During the week of winter break, he logged eight hours a day at the center putting the finishing touches to his 18 college applications.

‘IB DIPLOMA GAP’

In the past few years, IB Americas has trained a spotlight on engaging students such as Dirie. The Gates Foundation gave $2.4 million to study and address the so-called IB Diploma Gap.

Several studies, including one just released by the University of Chicago, have found IB participation has a powerful effect on minority and low-income students’ chances of going to college and succeeding there. And like the more common Advanced Placement college-credit classes, IB helps these students make a dent in college costs.

Broader participation is also a key goal because IB programs are a significant investment for the schools that offer them. There’s staff training, curricula, annual participation fees and a $100 fee per exam, which Minnesota districts cover for students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch with help from the state.

IB, which started in Switzerland catering to the children of diplomats, has grown briskly in Minnesota. Most of the state’s 50-some IB elementary, middle and high schools are diverse public schools in the metro.

In those programs, “Increasing the numbers of students of color and students from a lower family income is a constant goal and struggle,” said Charlotte Landreau, the president of the Minnesota Association of IB Schools and the IB coordinator at St. Paul’s Highland Park High School.

Statewide, there’s work to be done: While black students make up a quarter of students in IB schools, they account for only 9 percent of IB test-takers.

On the eve of expanding IB to six of its seven high schools three years ago, Minneapolis did away with prerequisites such as a minimum GPA – a trend that IB Americas is actively encouraging nationwide.

“We saw a disproportionate number of white students in those courses, and we wanted to change that,” said Paula Palmer, the district’s IB coordinator, adding that average scores on IB exams have not gone down after the prerequisites went away.

St. Paul is looking closely at the underrepresentation of students of color in advanced classes as it gears up to launch a new East Side IB program at Hazel Park Preparatory Academy,

Meanwhile, Dirie started hearing back from colleges this spring. In mid-March, the would-be computer-science major found out the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the nation’s top-ranked schools, wanted him. While he waits for financial aid offers, he’s tried to assuage his family’s concerns about him going so far away from home.

Said Dirie, “I think my parents have come to understand that going to college would lead to a much better career and better financial security.”

Mila Koumpilova can be reached at 651-228-2171. Follow her at twitter.com/MilaPiPress.

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Abdi Dirie works on a project at the Science Museum of Minnesota on Wednesday, March 21, 2012. (Pioneer Press: Chris Polydoroff)