Despite $350,000 investment, just 19 Science Hill students earn IB diplomas

JOHNSON CITY, TN (WJHL) – Science Hill High School is home to the only International Baccalaureate program in the region, but some wonder if Johnson City Schools is getting enough of a return on investment from the highly regarded college readiness program.

District records show the program has cost Johnson City taxpayers more than $350,000 over the last 12 years, not including the 13 staff members who dedicate some of their time to the program.

That investment has allowed 184 students to enroll in the program over the years with only 33 considered candidates for a diploma and just 19 earning diplomas, according to district records. That number does not include the four students who may or may not earn diplomas this year. They won’t find out if they’ve earned enough points until July.

“That’s one of the things that I feel is not acceptable and if we’re going to invest that type of money, I would expect us to have more students involved,” Johnson City School Board Member John Hunter said. “It’s an unacceptable number and we need to reassess the vitality or the strength of this program.”

Hunter says he thinks IB is a good program in theory, but isn’t convinced the district’s implemented it correctly or effectively.

“Let’s look at the numbers, both dollars and students, see how we can improve if possible to make it more efficient or effective and if not, if this is as good as it gets, look at the possibility of scrapping the program,” he said.

IB is a high level, two-year program that requires a tremendous amount of work and discipline in the years before and during a student’s junior and senior year. Successful completion of the program allows some students to earn scholarships, college credit and even enter college as sophomores.

Josh Francisco is one of 15 students currently enrolled in the program. He’s several steps ahead of his classmates when it comes to his college readiness as a result. The 17-year-old junior is finishing his first year in SHHS’s IB program. Francisco spends his school days immersed in deep conversations and advanced school work.

“It’s been an incredible experience,” he said. “I don’t even want to go to the bathroom in class, because of how much material we just go through. Like my dad told me the other day, he was telling me how much he’s seen my work ethic has changed and that I’m already more prepared for college than he was.”

The IB program is home to creative thinking, a balanced array of courses and small class sizes, but district numbers show those classes are especially small lately. Just 15 students enrolled this school year, one of the lowest numbers since students could start enrolling in 2008, according to district data.

“It does seem low to me,” Dr. Steve Barnett said of the overall number of diplomas granted. “One of the things that we need to do is to look to make sure, are we actually marketing the program effectively?”

Dr. Barnett will take over as Johnson City’s new superintendent in July. During his first year, he says he intends to review and measure the value of all programs, including IB.

“It’s really something that I need to, not just look at numbers, but look at students and look at the opportunities we’re providing for students,” he said.

Both of Jonathan Kinnick’s kids started the IB program. The school board member says his son dropped out due to scheduling issues, which the district has since addressed. He says his daughter, however, is one of the 19 who earned a diploma.

“That prepared her immensely for college where as my son kind of floated through, did well in high school, but didn’t have to work as hard, but then it hit him like a brick when he went to college,” Kinnick said. “You got to realize, there’s only so many things offered for these students that really want to challenge themselves.”

Kinnick agrees the school system needs to better market the program, do more to improve scheduling and clear up any confusion of the requirements and benefits, but he believes IB is a wise investment and says he plans on fighting for it.

“It is really an infinitesimal part of the budget,” he said. “It’s had some growing pains here and there and there’s still some things that they’re working on improving, but I still think it’s a good thing going forward. I think it’s a great program and I would do everything I can to keep it going. I’ve seen the benefit first-hand with my kids.”

While board members differ on IB’s success rate, the entire board has not made any decisions about the program’s future. The school board is expected to discuss the IB program as early as Friday at a budget meeting.

“IB is not something we have discussed as a Board recently, but I believe it is an important offering for our students,” Chairman Tim Belisle said. “I know there are some who question the expense relative to the number of students receiving diplomas, but I think there are other considerations. That being said, at budget time everything is subject to review, and we will be looking closely at all our expenditures as we prepare our budget to submit to the City.”

Although the program has existed for nearly a decade, 12 of the 19 diplomas issued came in just the last two school years, according to district data. In order to secure a diploma, students have to receive a minimum of 24 points or four (or C) out of a possible seven points for six academic subjects: English, World Language, Social Studies, Science, Mathematics and Fine Arts, according to Director of Instruction and Communications Dr. Debra Bentley. In addition, candidates have to do well in their “higher level” subjects and “standard level” subjects. Finally, students also have to complete an extended essay, 150 hours of a Creativity, Action and Service Project and a “Theory of Knowledge” course, according to Bentley.

Students can also earn IB certificates. Over the last three years, the school district issued 39 IB certificates for students who took specific IB courses instead of taking part in the entire program, 11 of those this school year, Dr. Bentley said. A student can earn multiple certificates. Certificates are not the same as diplomas, but in some cases can count toward college credit.

Francisco has his eyes on an IB diploma, so he can attend Vanderbilt University, earn college credits and land scholarships. He hopes more students benefit in the future.

“It’s just a great program and I really want to see if continue,” he said.

Copyright WJHL 2017. All rights reserved.

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