Jan. 4, 2007, 10:17AM
Extra effort in classroom pays off
International Baccalaureate puts participants on college fast track
By ERICKA MELLON
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
On many Saturday afternoons, Harrison Collie, a varsity baseball player at Houston's Lamar High School, turns down invitations to work out, play ball or grab lunch with friends.
The 17-year-old plans to graduate in May with the prestigious International Baccalaureate diploma. And that means he has spent countless weekends at home, reading novels and writing essays (he recently compared, in his words, "the portrayal of the heroic figure" in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Russell Banks' Rule of the Bone).
A senior, Collie has applied to several elite colleges out of state, as well as the University of Texas at Austin.
If he ends up at UT, or at any other Texas public school, he'll get an extra perk — thanks to a new law that rewards high school students for taking rigorous courses.
"I used to have kids ask me all the time, 'Why am I doing all this? Why am I banging my head against the wall? What's in it for me?' " said Jon Mallam, who has coordinated the IB program at Lamar High School for seven years. "So now, there is an incentive for them."
Debuted last year
Last year's batch of seniors was the first in Texas to benefit from the law, which requires public colleges to grant entering freshmen at least 24 semester credit hours if they complete the IB diploma program and score well on the related tests. The hours would boost most of them to near-sophomore status.
The law has helped standardize, and in some cases elevate, the number of credits colleges award IB graduates, according to Karen Phillips, executive director of the nonprofit Texas IB Schools, which pushed the legislation.
Under pressure to better prepare students for college, a growing number of U.S. schools and states are embracing the IB program, with its global standards, community-service mandate and near-rejection of multiple-choice exams.
Texas has 40 elementary, middle and high schools with the IB program — compared with about half that many five years ago, Phillips said. Worldwide, IB has authorized more than 1,900 schools, each of which survived a stringent application process that took about two years.
Lamar leads state
Lamar, in the Houston Independent School District, had 66 students graduate with an IB diploma in the Class of 2006 — the most in the state, according to Mallam. They were honored at a ceremony Tuesday at the Westin Galleria Houston.
"I'm still waiting for that magic day when we have 100 kids who get that IB diploma, and I don't think that's too far off in the future," Mallam said.
Not all the Lamar graduates go on to public colleges in Texas, but Florida and Colorado have similar credit-granting laws, and other states are considering them, said Bob Poole, of IB North America.
Southern Methodist University claims to be one of the country's first colleges to begin a comprehensive scholarship program for IB diploma recipients. Students can receive $4,000 to $12,000 a year based on their test scores.
"We've always encouraged our applicants to really challenge themselves as far as their coursework in high school. And (IB) is a program that really steps up the caliber of the high school curriculum," said Joseph Davis, an admissions counselor at SMU.
"I feel like I'm more prepared for college than I would be with any other program," said Asasia Carter, another IB-diploma candidate at Lamar.
Support for both
The IB program and the College Board's Advanced Placement program are often mentioned in the same breath by those promoting readiness for college.
President Bush, through his American Competitiveness Initiative, has expressed support for both. He has proposed spending $122 million to increase the number of math and science AP and IB tests taken and passed by low-income students.
Representatives of each program insist they aren't in competition. Students can earn college credit for passing both groups' tests, though IB requires extra work, including community service and a research paper, if students want the full diploma.
Of Houston ISD's 300 or so schools, only six offer the IB program: Bellaire and Lamar high schools; Lanier Middle School; and River Oaks, Roberts and Twain elementary schools.
Some elementary schools in HISD's central region also are mulling over the idea of applying, according to district spokeswoman Lisa Bunse.
Klein and Spring Branch each have one high school with the IB curriculum.
Linda Garner, who coordinates Klein's program, said the state law mandating college credit came just in time to help her students save money on tuition. She advises seniors to seek out visiting college recruiters whose schools offer extra perks to IB graduates.
"I told them, when you go to college night, you ask them, 'What do you do for IB students?' And if they don't do much for IB students, then you walk away and go to someone that does."