A worldwide education program that emphasizes a connection between every subject and global thinking is taking hold in the East Valley. The International Baccalaureate diploma program in the East Valley started in 1982 with Chandler High School.
Since then, high schools in Scottsdale and Mesa have adopted the diploma program for students in 11th and 12th grades. Tempe High School is in its last year of the application process and hopes to have a full diploma program next fall.
There are only 12 diploma programs in Arizona. Students at those schools take the same classes offered to International Baccalaureate World Schools in 131 countries.
Now younger students may get the chance to jump on board.
Chandler and Mesa are in the three-year process to get middle year programs (grades six through 10) approved by the international body that oversees IB programs. Scottsdale Unified School District is in the early analysis of adding a middle years program, said Desert Mountain High School assistant principal Sandy Lundberg.
Mesa also is applying for primary years IB approval at Frost Elementary School. The Mesa middle years programs would be at Hendrix Junior High School and the Mesa Academy for Advanced Studies. The Chandler middle years program would be at Andersen Junior High School.
It would make the Mesa Unified School District the first in the state to offer kindergarten through 12th grade IB education. It will share that distinction with 36 other districts in the country.
"The IB program is an incredible program in that it brings an international awareness to your campus. The program is highly rigorous so you're giving another option to students you don't get if you only have an AP (Advanced Placement) program," Lundberg said.
"The draw for the diploma program has been straightforward," said Gregg Good, coordinator of the IB program at Mesa's Westwood High School. "If these kids complete their IB program, which goes well beyond their Mesa diploma or an Arizona scholastic diploma, and they do well on their exams, they are very attractive to the best colleges and universities in the country. Good schools really recruit IB kids heavily."
The International Baccalaureate program started 40 years ago in Geneva, Switzerland. The program focus is to help students see beyond the four walls of their classroom, to see how they can have an impact on the world and stretch their learning.
Students in all grade levels study a foreign language. At the high school level, they complete 18 months of volunteer hours and a 4,000 word college-level thesis paper.
When a high school is in the process of applying for IB status, it can offer "pre-IB" courses to ninth- and 10th-graders.
It's a learning curve, students around the East Valley say, to figure out how to balance the time required for all their classwork, volunteer hours and additional school activities.
Fabian De La Cruz, 15, is sophomore enrolled in pre-IB classes at Tempe High. He hopes to be involved in the IB program as a junior, now that he's learned time management.
"That's something really important," he said about taking several pre-IB classes. "Last year around this time I was completely overwhelmed with all the homework. ... The classes aren't really hard now that I've learned to manage my time."
Nidhi Arora, Judy Zhang and Dennis Fries, senior IB students at Chandler High, said their junior year was still a balancing act. But as seniors, it got easier.
"Procrastination? You can't do it anymore. It's really about the motivation," Zhang, 17, said.
The motivation can pay off, said Chandler's IB coordinator Sherry Gore. Students can earn college credit when they do well on their IB exams. It's possible for them to graduate from high school and enter college as first- or second-semester sophomores.
It costs students $660 for all six IB subject exams, which carries the potential to earn three credits an exam. That's a lot less than a three-credit college course at some prestigious universities.
And it's those universities that many of the students aim for.
De La Cruz said he's looking at Harvard. Arora is hoping to attend medical school. And Fries wants to continue with all the film and television training he's gained through IB film courses at Chandler High.
"You'll get through college faster and if you want to go to medical school, it will lessen your time in undergrad," Arora said.
But how are classes like Theory of Knowledge making a difference in their lives?
"You discuss what you're learning, why you're learning it and what you've been through," Nidhi said.
The students are not just going through classes where rote memory is the main requirement.
There are always discussions, hands-on learning, application and lots of writing, Gore said.
"The students are coming up with perspectives, with hypothesizes," Gore said. "They discuss it. They justify it. It isn't right or wrong. It's just a philosophy of learning."
"It's an option for all students, not just the 4.0 or 5.0 students. They're learning with integrity and honor." Gore said.
Each high school can adopt its own guide to implement the program. At Mesa's Westwood, only students in the IB diploma program can enroll in courses. But at Chandler High, any student can opt into an IB-level class.
Finding a place for the courses in the school day can be a challenge for administrators. They get creative.
At Chandler High, some students enroll in classes that meet just once a week, but for four hours after the regular class day.
At Westwood, students in the Theory of Knowledge course grab their food before joining for a lunch-hour discussion.
This week, those students studied art with Nina Johnston, an English teacher with a special interest in the subject.
Showing a variety of slides - including photographs of the American flag and varying media images of President George W. Bush and President-elect Barack Obama - she asked the students to discuss, "Is this art?" She created a lively arena for the Socratic-type discussion typical of classes in the IB program.
"What is art? We discussed three things: Process, production and express," she said. "Art is intuitive and uniquely human."
It's the thinking that evolves from these types of lessons that spark Westwood seniors Melissa Crandall, 17, and Zamantha Lopez, 18.
"My favorite part is the discussions," Crandall said. "It's not just a right or a wrong answer. We get to think. ... It's not what you learn, but how you learn it."
Sometimes the additional knowledge she's gained has helped Lopez realize there's so much out there for her to know.
"The more you know the more you find out you don't know," she said. "We'll ask a question and the teacher will say, 'Why don't you look that up and tell us more about it tomorrow.'"
And that's exactly the point of the program, Good said.
"The teaching strategies with IB heavily emphasize Socratic dialogue, inquiry. The whole idea is we're training their brains," Good said. "The attraction is to have little inquirers who think and ask good questions. If you walk into an IB classroom, you see a dynamic study."