Beyond the Classroom

2015 Léman Graduation 6.6.15 - photo by Andrew Werner, 213

All high school students have a choice to make, one familiar to anyone who has ever sat in a classroom and thought about their future: Do you continue your education? If so, do you further it with Advanced Placement classes? Or, if it’s offered at your school, do you sign up for the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program? What’s right for you? What will get you into the college of your dreams? What will best prepare you for the future?

It’s no secret that college admissions have become increasingly competitive. According to a report in the Stanford Daily, 2,138 students joined Stanford University’s class of 2018 in the fall of last year. Over 42,000 applied. (Statistics for the class of 2019 were not yet available.) In 2014, MIT accepted less than 8 percent of its applicants; Harvard welcomed less than 6.

But a study published in 2012 by the International Graduate Insight Group, a U.K.–based research consultancy, suggests there is a way for students to increase their chances of admission at top colleges and universities like Harvard and Stanford: enroll in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program (IBDP), an established curriculum that students can begin at the start of their junior year, if it is offered at their high school. The acceptance rate of IBDP students into Ivy League schools, the study shows, is between 3 and 13 percentage points higher compared to the total population acceptance rate.

“It certainly doesn’t guarantee admission,” notes Drew Alexander, head of school at Léman Manhattan, one of the few independent preparatory schools to offer the IBDP in New York, “but it increases the possibility.”

Marilyn McGrath, director of undergraduate admission at Harvard, says: “We are always pleased to see the credentials of the IB diploma on the transcript. Success in IB correlates well with success at Harvard.”

The IBDP has been around for over four decades and it is gaining traction globally. By most measures, the curriculum is rigorous. To qualify as a diploma candidate, students have to complete a “creativity, action, service” program and take six mandatory subject courses. Three of those six have to be high-level classes. Also, outside of the necessary coursework, students are required to write a 4,000 word “extended essay” related to a subject they are studying. Then, usually during the last semester of junior year, IB candidates take a class called Theory of Knowledge. Unique to IB, Theory of Knowledge is meant to encourage critical thinking. By the end of that class, students must submit a 1,600 word essay and give an oral presentation on a specific topic.

All IBDP candidates have their written exams at the end of the program. These are marked by external IB examiners and graded on a scale of one to seven, seven being the highest. Diplomas are awarded to those who receive at least 24 points.

Students who choose to pursue an IB diploma work hard for it. Balancing the commitments requires discipline. “It’s preparing you for success in your other courses, but also for success in the real world,” says Alexander. “IB students are risk-takers, in an appropriate sort of way.”

“There’s a journey that every kid goes through in the IB that you don’t see in curricula like the AP,” says Mac Gamse, CEO of Meritas, a family of independent schools that provides personalized education to students across the globe. (Léman Manhattan is a Meritas School.) “[Students] are doing a lot of self-exploration, a lot of critical thinking. What IB is trying to do is have students take facts and question them, analyze them, and ultimately—through the writing of essays and projects—create their own opinions based on that information. It’s for strong, motivated students who want to take their education seriously.”

Still, students who are curious about IB classes but who do not wish to take on the full IBDP commitment are able to participate. If they are not able to complete all the hours of “creativity, action, service” and take the required course load, they have the option to become an IB certificate candidate. Alexander, who has witnessed all types of students benefit from both the diploma and certificate, says, “It really is a program that fits all students’ needs. You just have to decide what courses you’re going to be taking and at what level you want to take those courses.”

Based on enrollment statistics, international families appear to be more aware of the IBDP than domestic families. “There’s more education we have to do for New York City families than for someone coming from abroad,” explains Alexander. Data available on the International Baccalaureate Organization’s website shows that only 10 private schools in New York state offer the diploma program. New York public schools, however, are embracing IB faster; fifty New York schools appear when the “private school” filter is removed from the search.

All of this raises a valid, if slightly subjective, question: If the IBDP has been so well received, why are so few private schools in New York City offering it?

“A lot of times private, independent schools have their niche and their mission,” Alexander clarifies. “When you have a school with an established curriculum, inertia really plays a role in everything you do.”

“I think curricula and organizations are slow to change,” agrees Gamse. “And the traditional curricula haven’t really done a great job with globalization—dealing with internationalism—and dealing with critical thinking skills. Those are the real fundamentals of IB.”

There is also the issue of hiring and training IB teachers.

“It’s more expensive,” admits Gamse. “There is a significant amount of professional development that goes into teaching IB and teaching IB courses. The school really has to make a dedication to it.”

As a new school, Léman Manhattan sees its dedication to the IB program as an opportunity. With a diverse student body and a sustained mission to promote internationalism, Léman hopes to teach its students to become global citizens. Alexander stresses that we have to be aware about what’s going on internationally. “Today, we know that what happens in other parts of the world affects us immediately.”

“We’re going to have to figure out how to make this planet last for countless generations,” continues Alexander. “We are global citizens, whether we like it or not. We can choose to ignore it or embrace it; be victims or change agents.”