The Durham Public Schools' challenging college prep IB Programme faces own challenges
What if Durham Public Schools had a college preparatory program that routinely sent students to top universities?
Wouldn’t parents and students beat down the door to enroll?
Well, DPS has had such a program at Hillside High School since 1997, but it has struggled to enroll students. The school became one of the district’s magnet programs in 2006.
“When you go to college admissions officers, that’s what they say they prefer even ahead of advanced placement,” DPS Board of Education member Natalie Beyer said. “I don’t think we’ve ever done a good job of making sure the Durham community understands the amazing college prep program we have from kindergarten to Hillside graduation.”
The rigorous International Baccalaureate Programme is a K-12 continuum that begins at Burton Elementary Magnet School through fifth grade. The middle years program is offered at James E. Shepard Middle School in grades 6-8 and and then continues in grades 9-10 at Hillside.
Students in grades 11-12 also pursue the coveted IB diploma at Hillside. Those who decide not to pursue the diploma can still take IB courses, which are much like Advanced Placement courses.
Like many of DPS’ magnet programs, the IB Programme was created in large part to attract white students from the former majority white county school system to schools that were part of the predominantly black city school system before the two systems merged in 1992.
“They should have families from all over Durham flocking to knock down the door to get into these amazing programs,” Beyer said. “I’m afraid sometimes people have misconceptions about some of these school facilities and that’s wrong.”
The idea was to create schools with superior academic programs to attract white and black middle-class parents to send their children to inner-city schools, some of which are located in neighborhoods that were often in the headlines for the wrong reasons.
Some of the programs have enjoyed modest success in attracting white students, but as more students have left for surrounding districts, private and charter schools, many DPS magnet schools remain majority black and Hispanic decades after they were created.
About 50 percent of Durham County residents are white, but white children make up only 18.6 percent of the district’s enrollment of about 34,000 students.
“At the end of the day, my primary responsibility is to serve all of the students who are in our care,” said Hillside High Principal William Logan. “I think it takes a great deal of time to try to convince people of who we are.”
School board member Xavier Cason taught music in the IB Programme for 15 years.
Cason said it’s important to not measure the success of the IB Programme solely by enrollment or whether the program has attracted white students.
He said “diversity” also includes those African-American students who benefited from IB by graduating and becoming the first in their families to attend college.
“I think IB went a long way toward making that possible for a lot of students,” Cason said.
Program is under-enrolled
Currently, Hillside has 60 students enrolled in the IB diploma program, which is just juniors and seniors, but there is room for many more.
“We usually try to do about 100 [students] per grade level,” Logan said, referring to the overall IB Programme, including the freshmen and sophomore classes at Hillside. Many of those IB students are taking IB courses on an a la carte basis, challenging themselves with individual classes, much as students tackle AP courses on an individual basis. The are not necessarily on the IB diploma track.
Logan said a rumor that surfaced a couple of years ago claiming that the IB Programme was being discontinued has hurt enrollment.
“We took a hit,” Logan said. “We only got about 30 kids that year who registered for the program.”
Logan was referring to a rumor a couple of years ago that the IB Programme, which operates as a school within a school, would be eliminated due to budget cuts that would have required Logan to cut 10 teaching positions, hurting the school’s ability to offer IB and the school’s Freshman Academy.
The current freshmen include 100 students who are enrolled in the IB middle years program. That program will pick up more students when Hillside goes to a whole school approach for IB. When that happens most students in grades 9-10 will be part of the middle years program.
After 10th grade, students will decide whether to enroll in the diploma program.
A visit to Hillside
Christine Amihere, a chemistry teacher, has taught in the IB Programme for three years.
“It gives them some independence to think and problem solve and to look at how what they’re doing in the classroom relates to the world,” Amihere said.
She noted that the 15 students or so in her chemistry class already had one year of honors chemistry, and after IB chemistry, Amihere said the students will be well-prepared to tackle the subject in college.
“I think when students go to college, they will find themselves more prepared,” Amihere.
Hillside also has the benefit of 90-minute classes, which Amihere said is perfect for chemistry because students can set up experiments and conduct them the same day.
“At other schools where the class periods were 45 minutes long, I would spend one period preparing for an experiment and the next period doing the experiment,” Amihere said.
Shamon Mercier, a senior in the diploma program at Hillside, said he began his IB journey at Shepard Middle.
He said the workload is extremely heavy, but he expects it to pay off next year when he goes to college.
“It’s challenging,” Mercier said. “I have a very heavy workload and the discussions we have in IB courses are more in depth as well.”
While students take many of the same classes as those on a traditional academic track, the IB courses are more rigorous and students are expected to walk away with a deeper understanding of the subject matter. IB students also have more homework and are expected to become proficient in writing papers that would be acceptable on a college campus.
In addition to chemistry, students in the diploma program take English, foreign language, history, math and other IB courses.
They must take the “Theory of Knowledge” course, which asks students to reflect on the nature of knowledge and on how we know what we claim to know.
An in-depth research paper of approximately 3,500 words focusing on any topic the student chooses is also required, along with a long-term project based upon 150 hours of project-based extra-curricular work over two years.
So what gives?
So why aren’t Durham families knocking down the door?
It’s true that some parents think Hillside isn’t academically rigorous. That perception stems in part from students’ struggles on state end-of-course tests. Only 33.7 percent of Hillside students were deemed grade-level proficient on the 2016-17 tests in math, biology and English.
But Logan, who was named the district’s principal of the year in 2013, has been credited with leading a “renaissance” academically and athletically at the school. In 2016-17 the school where 61.2 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, earned a state performance grade of “C” and exceeded expected growth.
Hillside also posted an 83 percent graduation rate.
Between 2010 and 2016, only 10 students have earned the coveted IB diploma, but hundreds have received certificates for completing rigorous IB courses.
Logan said there is “tremendous value” in students going through the program even if it doesn’t result in an IB diploma.
He said students don’t earn IB diplomas for various reasons, including not completing a required 4,000 word essay or the extra-curricular hours component, which would disqualify the student even if he or she did well on the IB tests.
“Overall, students who approach it with the right level of seriousness do well,” Logan said. “In my opinion, there’s lots of value in participating in the program. We want our students to earn the IB diploma, but we also want as many students as possible to take advantage of the program.”
“You have to come in and experience it for your self,” Logan said. “Our kids do extraordinarily well, those who go through the IB program. We have students who get into Ivy League schools, students who go to HBCUs, state and private institutions.“They have the luxury of creating opportunities for themselves. When they do the work that’s required of them, the proof is in the pudding, the scholarships, the graduation rate.”
Could better marketing boost enrollment in the program?
Mary Griffith, the district’s magnet programs administrator, said DPS does a good job of marketing the program but thinks the district could work to make the message about the program easier for parents to understand.
“When you say International Baccalaureate to a family or to any perspective applicant, it’s like what does that mean?” Griffith said. “A lot of the IB program is not something that you can go in and see like with technology or arts or STEM.
IB is an instructional approach, so it’s a little bit harder to make concrete to families as they’re trying to imagine their child taking this program or connect an aptitude or interest with the program. There’s messaging that has to take place and maybe some gaps in that messaging and making it more concrete to our public that IB is for everyone.”
Meet the Beasleys
Darryl Beasley and wife Tamera Coyne-Beasley are an upwardly mobile couple — he’s an educator and she’s a doctor. They could have sent their two children to any school, public or private.
But they decided on Hillside, lured by the school’s IB Programme and its resurgent athletics program.
“We liked the academic rigor and the ability to earn credit before going to college,” said Darryl Beasley, a DPS teacher and the athletic director at Rogers-Herr Middle School.
The Beasley’s daughter Kayla is a senior in the IB program where she has excelled in the classroom and in track and field.
Their son Keith, an African American and a recipient of UNC-Chapel Hill’s prestigious Morehead-Cain Scholarship, was the valedictorian for the Class of 2015 and a standout football player. He was an All-PAC-6 4-A linebacker at Hillside and was on the UNC-CH roster for the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
“We liked that they were going to be prepared for college rigor,” Darryl Beasley said. “We felt like the IB program and the athletics were good for our family. It may not be for everyone, but it worked for us.”
Keith Beasley is now a junior at UNC-CH pursuing a degree in business administration.
“College is an eye-opening experience,” Keith Beasley said. “But when I got to UNC, I was really prepared. The workload in college is similar to the workload I had at Hillside in the IB Programme.”
Keith Beasley said students in the IB Programme write a lot of papers, which helped him to make a smooth transition to college.
“My comfort level with writing papers was very high,” Keith Beasley said. “I was used to doing that because we had to write a lot of papers in the IB program.”
In addition, Keith Beasley said he learned to manage his time wisely and to think from a global perspective. He said he routinely spent three to four hours per night studying when in high school.
Keith Beasley said he came up two points short of earning the coveted IB diploma.
“It opened my mind to new ways of thinking about issues,” Keith Beasley said.
New links in the continuum
In Durham, the IB experience begins at Burton Elementary School where the primary years IB Programme is housed. Students, however, can jump in at any time before the diploma program starts in 11th grade. From Burton, students can move on to Shepard Middle School, then Hillside High School to continue the middle years program and to complete the diploma program.
There has been a hitch in the link from Burton to Shepard, with few of the 55 or so fifth-graders who leave Burton each year choosing Shepard for sixth-grade.
Over the past seven years, Shepard, which has room for 546 students, has operated under capacity. It reached a low of 455 students during the 2016-17 school year. There are 463 students this school year.
Meanwhile, each year, only 40 percent — about 22 of Burton’s fifth-graders — who apply to Shepard make it their first choice on magnet school applications. There are roughly 186 available sixth-grade slots available at Shepard each year.
To boost enrollment at Shepard Middle School, the school board recently approved three new elementary feeder schools — Club, Holt and R.N. Harris elementary schools. Students from those schools will get priority assignments to Shepard in the magnet school lottery after students from Burton have been seated.
“I think that’s a great thing,” said Shepard Principal Micah Copeland, when asked about the three new links to Shepard.
Micah said the relationship with the new feeder schools should help Shepard attract more students because the school will form partnerships with the new feeder schools and have students and parents from the elementary schools visit Shepard to see what it has to offer.
“We’ll have more opportunities to partner with them and have their students come work with us and our students go work with them,” Copeland said. “It’ll give them a chance to see us.
Over the past five years, about 28 percent of R.N. Harris students have listed Shepard as a first choice in the magnet lottery. Meanwhile 10 percent of Club Boulevard fifth-graders have listed Shepard as a first-choice magnet assignment and 6 percent of fifth-graders at Holt.
Each of the additional feeder schools were chosen because they have a language, humanities and arts focus that aligns with the IB Programme.
“All three of those programs lend themselves very well to the IB profile and subject areas,” Griffith said. “That link will allow them to continue on and to have a priority at those schools.”
While they may be few in number, those parents and students who have chosen the IB path are fiercely loyal to the program.
At a recent town hall meeting with Superintendent Pascal Mubenga, LiBria R. Stephens, whose son is enrolled in the IB program, came to make sure that the program will continue to receive funding and district support.
“I want to make sure the money stays here for the IB Programme,” Stephens said. “I’m tired of having that debate every year when this program produces such great scholars.”
Durham Public Schools enrollment demographics
▪ African-American: 46.7 percent
▪ Hispanic/Latino: 30.1 percent
▪ White: 18.6 percent
▪ Multiracial: 2.8 percent
▪ Asian: 2.3 percent
▪ American Indian: 0.3 percent
▪ Hawaiian/Pacific Islander: 0.1 percent
Source: Durham Public Schools
Some universities Hillside IB students have attended over the past 5 years
▪ Morehouse College
▪ Spelman College
▪ UNC-Chapel Hill
▪ Duke University
▪ N.C. State University
▪ N.C. A&T State University
▪ Howard University
▪ Hampton University
▪ N.C. Central University
▪ S.C. State University
▪ Florida A&M University
▪ Clemson University
▪ Vanderbilt University
▪ Davidson College
▪ Radford University
▪ Virginia Tech
▪ Elon University
▪ American University
▪ East Carolina University
A look at International Baccalaureate Programme diploma requirements
To earn an IB diploma, a student must take one courses from six subject areas that offer several course options. The subject areas include language arts, a second language, individuals and societies, experimental science, math and computer science and the arts. Students can substitute a course from one of the first five subject areas in lieu of taking one in the arts.
IB diploma candidates must also complete what is known at the core, which consists of a class titled the “Theory of Knowledge (TOK),” an essay known as the Extended Essay and a project known as Creativity, Action, Service or CAS.
TOK has been described as a mix of philosophy that forces students to reflect on big world issues such as major cultural shifts that have changed the world. Examples include the digital revolution and the move to an information-based economy.
Students must also write a 4,000-word mini-thesis (Extended Essay) on the topic of their choice and complete a three-part project (CAS) that forces them to get involved in extracurricular activities.