IB versus AH at Southwest High School: separate but equal or unequal?

Two small learning communities have different criteria, so how do they compare?

With a public school system that offers open enrollment and encourages choice, Minneapolis high school students have virtually unending options not only in what types of classes they take but how they're taught. Through the district's 130 &#8220small learning communities,” or SLCs, that group students and teachers based on interests, students can tailor education to their goals and learning styles.

But for students who live in Southwest and want to attend school there, only two choices exist: the super-traditional, test-based International Baccalaureate (IB) program and its virtual opposite, the Arts and Humanities (AH) program that emphasizes creativity and self-directed learning. But is it a choice? Kids who don't make it through the rigorous application process for the limited-enrollment IB program default into AH - leading to the perception that it's a lesser program with fewer exceptional students.

Minneapolis Public School Board member Lydia Lee addressed the issue in November - leading the district to a study of all its SLCs to determine whether disparities do, in fact, exist. Results are expected back this month. In the case of Southwest's AH program, the only one found in the district, administrators never have followed up on students' progress, test scores or college attendance in the four years of the program's existence.

&#8220There's such a desire from so many parents who want their child to get into IB, and if they don't make it, then that's devastating to them. The child feels like a failure,” she said. &#8220We need to dispel that.”

Although some kids may default into AH, Southwest Principal Bill Smith said that's not the message the school conveys. Part of the perception comes from the age of the two programs: IB has been in the school for 14 years, he said, and AH has been around for only four.

&#8220The standards are the same. They're just different approaches,” he said. If you talk to the teachers, I think you'll see that they're most concerned about quality and not the titles of the program they're teaching.”

International Baccalaureate programs worldwide presents material through a global lens and train students to be &#8220thinkers, communicators and inquirers.”

Here, as elsewhere, students must apply for the program. To qualify, applicants must have a minimum grade point average of 3.0, test scores that place them in the top 20 percent of their previous grade and have good attendance records. Students also must submit a personal statement and a persuasive essay. A panel of judges that include teachers and administrators decide which students to admit. The program begins in 9th grade and concludes with graduation. Students who complete the program receive a specialized diploma.

Of 280 students who applied to the IB program this year at Southwest, 210 were admitted. Altogether, there are 725 kids in IB and 611 kids in AH at the school. Over the four years, a significant number of students decide not to pursue the IB diploma but remain in the program. The school also offers advanced-placement courses intended to better prepare kids for college.

While the studious IB program draws from a stockpile of knowledge and theory, Arts and Humanities is less test-oriented and focuses more greatly on a student's personal development. Homework is less structured, and students are encouraged to follow their inspiration. AH offers a flexible schedule with plenty of room for electives.

AH English teacher David West, who also teaches some pre-AP and pre-IB classes, described it as student-driven and spontaneous, often resulting in a visual demonstration.

&#8220We create knowledge for whoever comes in the door,” he said. &#8220We look at the arts through an academic lens and academics through a lens of artistry. Some of the tests I give wouldn't look like tests at all. We're doing a play right now and students have a choice between reading about it or practicing the art form.”

Although it's not conventional, West said, &#8220I'll fight to say that AH prepares kids for college and that an A in my class means something.”

IB social studies teacher Greg Denysenko formerly taught in AH and found it difficult to straddle various student abilities, goals and even languages within one class. &#8220It was a challenge. I was concerned about the college-bound kids. I spent a good part of the year teaching toward the middle which doesn't prepare kids who want to go to college,” he said.

But much of the missing rigor is now made up through the addition of pre-AP classes, Denysenko said.

Parent Mary Linehan, who's involved in the AH parent group that formed last year, supports the program, although two of her three children either graduated from or is set to graduate from Southwest's IB program.

&#8220My oldest daughter did say it was worth it and she felt prepared, but my senior daughter [in IB] is questioning, ‘Did I work like crazy to be treated like an average student?' I do have faith that my son [in AH], with parent and teacher support, will be just as successful.”