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High Schools Offer College Prep

Program studies differ in scope and focus.

"Getting ahead" is the name of the game for high school students looking to the future. Both high schools in Cluster IV offer college-level curriculum. West Potomac High School students can take Advanced Placement courses, while students at Mount Vernon High School can take advantage of the International Baccalaureate program.

What is the difference between these two programs? While there are differences, the bottom line is that both programs are meant to prepare students for higher education, according to Dan Coast, IB coordinator, and Dave Goldfarb, AP coordinator.

Coast said that the two programs are similar in that they are both college-level, rigorous, and valuable for college bound students.

Coast said the IB diploma program is more intense than the equivalent of an AP diploma. Students are required to write essays and take the Theory of Knowledge course.

“One thing that makes us different is the way the course is delivered,” Coast said. “There is a lot of creative and analytical thinking required. [The IB organization] believes ‘that students should share an academic experience that would emphasize critical thinking, intercultural understanding and exposure to a variety of points of view.’”

Goldfarb said that one of the differences is that a student has to be enrolled in an IB course to take the exam. Students have the option to study and take an AP exam without taking the course. Nancy Kreloff, assistant principal at West Potomac, said that there is more writing and paperwork in IB courses. At West Potomac, Goldfarb is still teaching a full load of Advanced and Honors History courses in addition to his role as AP coordinator.

THE INTERNATIONAL BACCALAUREATE diploma is a pre-university program that is available for motivated students in their last two years of high school. Students may work toward the full diploma or they may take individual classes to receive certificates.

The grading system used by the International Baccalaureate Organization measures each student's performance against defined levels of achievement consistent from one examination to the next. Top grades show that the student has attained the knowledge and skills relative to set standards equally applied to all schools.

Each examined subject is graded on a scale of 1(minimum) to 7(maximum). The award of the diploma requires students to meet defined standards and conditions including a minimum number of 24 points and the satisfactory completion of the extended essay, Theory of Knowledge course and Creativity, Action, Service requirements.

BACK IN THE EARLY 90’s, IB was still relatively unheard of. MVHS offered AP courses, but was struggling as a school. Del. Kristen J. Amundson (D-44), then a member of the Fairfax County School Board, decided that the introduction of IB at Mount Vernon would not only be very beneficial for the students, but it would also raise the reputation of the school overall.

After a long campaign by Amundson to get school board members to agree to fund it, Mount Vernon High School became an authorized International Baccalaureate School in July 1994; it and Stuart High School were the first two schools in Fairfax County to offer IB. Now six other Fairfax County Schools participate in the program as well — Annandale, Edison, South Lakes, Lee, Robinson and Marshall.

Coast said that the coordinators get together four times a year. When IB was first introduced at MVHS, there were only four authorized IB schools in the state of Virginia. Today, Virginia has 33 IB high schools.

The first year, the school gave 63 IB exams in one subject. In May 2002, they gave 497 exams in 18 different subjects.

Coast said that this past May, 2005, they gave 523 exams and awarded 26 IB Diplomas. “Both are MVHS records — 44 percent of our juniors and seniors were enrolled in at least one IB course,” Coast said.

At Mount Vernon High School the goal is for every student to take at least one IB course before he or she graduates. There is no entrance exam or stated GPA that a student must have to participate in the IB program, but some courses require a prerequisite, such as Pre-IB Chemistry before taking IB Biology.

Mount Vernon recently broke ground again by becoming an authorized IB Middle Years school. There are currently only four other authorized IB-MYP schools in Virginia. The program was implemented at Walt Whitman Middle School three years ago, with the first group of students culminating this program at the end of their sophomore year. MVHS’ vision of this program is that every ninth and tenth grade course will be taught using the IB-MYP framework.

ANUARITE MUBANGU graduated this past May from MVHS with an IB Diploma and feels that it was well worth it.

“There were times when it was hard, but my senior year was easy,” she said. “I know that it definitely helped me get into schools.”

She was accepted at all of the schools she applied to, and has decided to go to Mary Washington College.

“It helps you and pushes you a little,” she said. “I’ve heard that students who take IB courses find that college isn’t as difficult because they’re used to the workload “

Dan Coast agrees with that acknowledgment. As IB coordinator, he hears from the students when they return after graduation.

“They find that they have a harder load in high school than they do their freshman year,” Coast said.

Coast started at Mount Vernon in 1997 as an IB biology teacher; he was asked to become the coordinator three years ago.

“I miss the classroom terribly,” he said, but knows that with an increasing population of IB students that there is plenty of work to be done. Last year almost 50 percent of the seniors took at least one IB course.

“We want to challenge students to try at least one IB class,” said Eric Brent, principal, MVHS. “We want to challenge them academically.”

“This I knew was the chance to put in something very different and very strong,” said Amundson, who is currently writing a book on how parents can work with schools to help their children achieve. The working title is "How Band Can Get Your Child Into the Ivy League . . . And Other School Secrets Parents Need to Know.”

“The IB program is very good and very strong,” Amundson said. “IB has always emphasized writing — that was the great strength of writing. You know when you take an IB course that you’re going to write a lot.”

AMUNDSON SAID that initially IB was not as well known as AP at colleges and universities, but that has changed. Now, colleges and universities around the world recognize the International Baccalaureate diploma and certificates.

Regarding AP courses, Amundson said that AP English Literature and AP Government are particularly strong courses, and the area of humanities is one of AP’s greatest strengths.

“There are strengths either way,” she said. “Colleges and universities expect that the curriculum is top tier. That is the way to go. For years, Superintendent Spillane and then Superintendent Domenech were pushing kids to be challenged. We’re saying clearly that you’re not going to get into U.Va. without a complement of AP or IB courses. By taking them you make choices that open doors and you feel like you’re sort of shortchanging yourself if you don’t take AP. The bar has been raised and if you make the decision not to take these courses then you have closed doors.”

Amundson went on to say that colleges and universities are starting to feel that scores from AP and IB courses are better predictors than SOL or SAT scores.

“They weigh them more heavily than other things,” she said.

THE ADVANCED PLACEMENT PROGRAM was developed in 1955 by The College Board as a means to offer college level courses to motivated high school students.

Advanced Placement classes are college-level courses developed and supported by the College Board. A student is eligible to earn college credit at most U.S. colleges and universities when he or she completes an AP course, takes the year-end standardization examination for that course and receives a score of at least 3, 4 or 5 on the course exam,. One year spent in an AP course is the academic equivalent of one semester in an introductory college course. The College Board supports AP teachers by regularly offering workshops and conferences in all disciplines.

The AP program offers 35 courses in 20 subject areas with nearly 60 percent of U.S. high schools participating in the AP program. In 2005, 2.1 million AP exams were administered worldwide and more than 60,000 teachers worldwide attended AP workshops and institutes for professional development last year. Over 90 percent of the nation's colleges and universities have an AP policy granting incoming students credit, placement, or both, for qualifying AP exam grades.

West Potomac High School offers one of the largest selections of AP courses in Fairfax County. West Potomac's program provides students with a variety of courses. Students do not need to be tested to be considered for placement in either program. Instead, past academic performance and teacher recommendations should influence students, parents and counselors in the course-selection process.

Students may begin to take honors classes, some of which are preparatory for AP, in 9th grade, and they may begin AP classes in 10th grade with AP Modern European History. West Potomac currently offers 24 Advanced Placement classes, most of which are taught at the 11th and 12 grade levels.

WHILE FAIRFAX COUNTY reported record numbers of students enrolling in AP courses last year, the numbers for West Potomac decreased. Goldfarb attributed that to the fact that West Potomac’s AP program has been in existence longer than some of the other high schools, which are still building.

This year, however, Rima Vesilind, West Potomac Principal, was predicting that the numbers were up significantly — from 779 to 1,073.

“The counselors are convincing kids that they can do it,” she said. “It’s amazing what they can accomplish. Students come back from college and thank us for recommending that they took AP English or another course.”

Vesilind said that ninth-grade teachers are now being trained and know what skills students need to have. She believes this will help increase the number of students enrolling for AP courses because they will be more prepared.

Goldfarb said that he’s noticed that in the last three years, a large number of students are taking their first course in sophomore year. The numbers should increase as they move on.

Vesilind said that students are scoring very high and said that she would like to see the number of minority students increase who are taking AP courses.

Although the College Board developed a pilot program for an Advanced Placement diploma in the 1999-2000 school year it has not become an integral part of the program. The College Board withdrew the option and the county is deciding if they want to pursue it as an option. The qualifications laid out for an AP diploma included: earning a qualifying score of 3, 4, or 5 on exams for five full-credit AP exams, one each from the following area: literature and languages, sciences, history and social sciences, mathematics, and an elective (electives may be completed from one of the four core areas) and attaining a 3.0 AP GPA (exam score average) for all AP exams taken.

Goldfarb said that most colleges reward students if they are well rounded and take courses in Math, Science, languages, social studies and electives.