Henry Johnson, principal at West Potomac High School, said that becoming an Advanced Placement diploma school has meant more to his students than just the opportunity to receive college credits.
"The high school, being the east end of the county, gets a reputation as not being as good," Johnson said. "Having a quality educational program dispels the myths. It has given the students the opportunity to experience academic success."
Fairfax County Public Schools offers two specialized diploma programs to its students, the AP or IB diplomas, both of which confirm a student has completed a broad range of academic classes that culminated in rigorous examinations administered and evaluated by outside examiners.
For AP diploma candidates, that means five or more tests that can take anywhere from three to five hours to complete and can earn the student college credit. IB diploma candidates face lengthy exams in six subjects, must participate in community-service activities and complete a 4,000-word essay.
In each case, the examinations are administered in May, with the results released in July. All Fairfax County graduates receive identical diplomas. The student's transcripts reflect whether he is an AP or IB diploma recipient.
"Both programs want to emphasize a broad education," said Bernadette Glaze, Advanced Academic Programs specialist in the schools system’s Instructional Services Department. "Both have diplomas, full or individual subject certificates, awarded."
Glaze said 17,000 AP and 3,500 IB exams were administered to county students last year. As part of a pilot program, 158 AP diplomas were awarded last year. In addition, 152 IB diplomas were awarded in 2001.
APPEALING TO VARIED INTERESTS
In all, 15 Fairfax County high schools take part in the program: Centreville, Chantilly, Fairfax, Falls Church, Hayfield in Kingstowne, Herndon, Lake Braddock in Burke, Langley in Great Falls, Madison in Vienna, McLean, Oakton, Westfield in Chantilly, West Potomac in Mount Vernon and West Springfield in Springfield.
Oakton and Fairfax high schools, however, were not included in the pilot diploma program.
Glaze said the AP diploma pilot is being conducted in 21 jurisdictions and does not have the history of the IB program, which was created in 1967 and was first offered in the county in 1994. Both programs have become popular with the students.
Typically, the decision of whether a school is AP or IB is a matter of geography, but in Fairfax County Public Schools, a high school is one or the other and does not offer both IB and AP classes. The school system tries to make sure there is at least one AP and one IB school in a general attendance area. Glaze said there was no reason why a school could not offer both programs, but class size and teacher training currently prevent schools from offering both programs.
"The programs are open, and we encourage kids to take at least one course, even if they don't want to go for the diploma," Glaze said.
Johnson said that with 19 AP courses, the students have a range of classes to feed their interests. He said the school also instantly receives automatic recognition not available to other schools, given the diploma program is available in select jurisdictions.
He also said the program definitely gives his students an edge.
"It puts them in good standing when they compete for colleges, especially since most schools across the country don't have all the opportunities we do," said Johnson. "When our students are getting ready to compete, they have a pretty good academic resume and especially if they do well on the AP exam because they'll already have college credit."
This year, West Potomac has 42 seniors aiming for an AP diploma, while overall about 400 students, or one-fifth of the school's population, are enrolled in AP classes.
How much of an edge the diploma gives students has yet to be seen.
Oakton High School principal Charles Ostlund said the program has helped students in the sense it shows colleges the students can do college-level work, but since the program has only been around since 1999, it is hard to tell what effect it has when it comes to college acceptance rates.
"Is it better to take an AP course and get a C or a regular class and get an A? I don't know," Ostlund said.
BEING PREPARED FOR COLLEGE
For IB schools on the other hand, history has shown colleges and universities recognize the program and it does play a role in preparing students for higher education.
"It's all been positive," said Connie Wineland, Marshall's IB program coordinator. "The kind of teaching is very collegiate-like. We've shifted away from a kind of teaching that is memorization and multiple choice to one of a great deal of time, learning and analysis."
The IB schools are Annandale, Edison in Alexandria, Lee in Springfield, Marshall in Falls Church, Mount Vernon, South Lakes in Reston and Stuart in Falls Church.
The IB program has six core subjects that require hands-on learning, as well as lectures, and involves student analysis of results, facts or information sources. The program is an international program that is essentially the same at its core around the world.
"The strength of the IB program is an emphasis on analytical writing. We're giving kids information, and they have to demonstrate they have knowledge of the subject," said Betsy Calhoon, IB program coordinator at Mount Vernon. "For example in the historic component, the students have to research where the facts come from and what type of agenda the writer might have had. The students have to analyze the facts and the tools that have been used to reach those conclusions."
Calhoon said the program was a perfect fit at Mount Vernon, especially since the school has a high number of minorities and economically needy students. The program helps Mount Vernon provide classes that reflect the ethnic diversity of the school.
She said she has had several students come back and tell her they knew how to write a proper college paper or have taught their roommates to write an essay.
"These are the hardest courses in the world," Wineland said. "And the students are scored on a continuum, so they know how they compare against the best in the world."
Wineland said that while all students are encouraged to at least take one IB course, they are also reminded to remain realistic in their goals. To that end, Marshall provides counseling to the students and guides them to courses that will be challenging but not impossible for them to succeed in.