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Feb. 8, 2008

From special to standard

by Emily Hsiao, Online Managing Editor
Fifteen years ago, an eighth grader would be nervously hoping to receive an acceptance letter from the International Baccalaureate (IB) Program at Richard Montgomery High School, inviting him to be one out of only 100 students in MCPS to enroll in the IB. Now an eighth grader applying may still be anxiously awaiting his acceptance letter to the IB at Richard Montgomery, but he will be one out of hundreds of students enrolling because of the open enrollment of the IB in other schools.

The IB is a well-known curriculum termed under the category of "Special Programs" on the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) web site. Altogether in MCPS, there are six special programs available in 15 elementary schools, nine in 13 middle schools and nine in 20 high schools. A varied offering of high-level courses used to make these programs unique, but with the county's push to spread the programs to a number of schools, the quality and diversity of these curricula are steadily declining.

What should MCPS's main focus be in regards to special programs?
  • Having a variety of unique programs
  • Promoting open-enrollment programs
  • Promoting application-only programs
  • Limiting the number and types of programs
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On Dec. 13, MCPS Superintendent Jerry Weast announced the replacement of the Cambridge program, an internationally recognized curriculum set by the University of Cambridge, with the IB program at John F. Kennedy and Seneca Valley High Schools during his presentation of the recommended operating budget for fiscal year 2009. The MCPS Board of Education approved the budget on Monday, including the $79,310 need for Seneca Valley and Kennedy's switches to the IB, according to MCPS Budget Supervisor Carol Hurley.

Both Kennedy and Seneca Valley will begin to phase out their Cambridge programs for the IB in the fall of 2008. This move will lead to a loss of selectivity and rigor in the programs, moving away from the better goal of providing a selection of unique programs for students to choose from.

Available at only Kennedy and Seneca Valley, the Cambridge program was chosen to be phased out because replacing it for the better-known IB will impact the fewest number of students, according to Kennedy IB coordinator Brian Beaubien. But MCPS has failed to realize that no matter how many students are in a particular program, they are enrolled because they want to experience a unique educational environment.

By replacing less well-known programs like the Cambridge at Kennedy with more widely known ones like the IB, MCPS is decreasing the diversity in programs offered throughout the county. The IB costs more money to run than the Cambridge, according to Beaubien, and there are already six high school IB programs in the county at Richard Montgomery, Bethesda-Chevy Chase (B-CC), Watkins Mill, Springbrook, Einstein and Rockville High Schools. Five of these schools do not require applications only that students live within the region or consortium of the school. With six copies of the IB available to students in the county, there is no need to add two more. Instead, MCPS should be focusing on bringing in as many new programs as possible to provide students with unique opportunities.

In addition, putting the same program into so many schools only dilutes its selectivity and value. Richard Montgomery has the only IB in MCPS that uses an application process to select students, while the other five schools have open enrollment. The difference between these copies of the IB program is evident in the graduation rates. Richard Montgomery's IB had 100 percent of their students graduate with an IB Diploma last year, according to IB coordinator Jennifer Hoover. On the other hand, B-CC's IB's diploma pass rate usually ranges from 94 to 100 percent, according to IB coordinator Beth Groeneman, and Watkins Mill's IB's diploma pass rate ranges from approximately 65 to 70 percent, according to IB coordinator Lisa Ingram. If the copies fail to achieve the same levels of rigor, they are not necessarily providing students with a better education.

The argument that spreading selective programs such as the IB allows more students to take advantage of educational opportunities is valid. But if the programs cannot maintain the same standards of demanding work, then they lose their purpose. Schools should instead focus on offering high-level courses to all students.

Academic programs are defined as "special" by MCPS because they are supposedly unique in the county. But if the county continues to try to standardize these programs by making them more widespread and less selective, students will lose unique opportunities. Instead, MCPS should focus on creating a variety of special programs for students to experience.



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  • Jon Phoenix Brookstone on February 9, 2008 at 3:00 PM
    The fact that Watkins Mill's IB diploma rate being 65-70% might have nothing to do with the rigor of the program. In every school, the reasons why people don't complete a particular diploma program are almost as varied as the students. Saying that it's because of a lack of academic rigor, especially without providing any hard evidence to back that up, is a fallacy.
  • J. (View Email) on February 10, 2008 at 10:48 AM
    Creating more IB programs doesn't "water down" RM. Admissions there are every bit as competetive as they used to be. Students apply to RM for the opportunity to be a part of a magnet program, which is something that the other schools do not offer. Creating more schools doesn't affect RM curricula or competetiveness at all.
  • Blazer on February 26, 2008 at 12:25 PM
    Higher graduation rate argues for LESS rigor, not more...
  • Joe Rosen (View Email) on April 30, 2008 at 8:51 PM
    I completely agree with this article. Rather than create "special," standardized programs, like the IB Montgomery County should work on having a diverse population of programs. The RM IB, Blair Magnet, Blair CAP, and Einstein VAC are all original programs. They are all programs that cater to people with certain talents. Creating more mimic programs does not solve the problem of challenging students rather it dilutes what the programs that are challenging students do.
  • S on May 18, 2008 at 5:19 AM
    Why limit these opportunities to students in other schools? More IB programs available the better. Standards can be monitored independently from quantity.
  • MCPS will regret its stupidity on May 23, 2008 at 3:18 AM
    MCPS has made so many stupid decisions that very soon, within the next decade, their mistakes will come back not to bite THEM, but to haunt the future students. If one of the "best counties in the country" decides to forsake REAL education for petty politics, then education is doomed. Too bad we don't have people who know what they're doing, instead of near-sighted and ignorant fools.

    I'd love it when MCPS finally decides to openly discuss all of its policies, instead of this Bush administration secretive crap they're pulling. I bet they complain all the time about Bush's abuse of secrets (living in a liberal county, elected by liberal people), and still keep their own dirty little secrets. Hypocrites.
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