WATERLOO — The students struggled with time management and keeping up on homework. Some of them even had to learn how to study.
But this group of recent Waterloo Community Schools’ graduates wasn’t in danger of dropping out of high school.
Rather, the 16 teenagers’ were striving to do college-level work during their last two years at East and West high schools.
They were the inaugural class of district students to complete the International Baccalaureate diploma. The rigorous two-year college preparation program known worldwide is offered in only one other Iowa school, Des Moines’ Central Academy.
Earning the diploma requires achieving a certain score for classes in six academic areas and completion of three core requirements. Those requirements include taking a half-year theory of knowledge class, writing a 4,000-word extended essay and doing a service component outside of school.
“The moment when it’s hardest is the very beginning,” said Daisy Gojara, who graduated from East High School on Thursday after completing the IB program. “We weren’t necessarily prepared for the kind of academic rigor that this program offers.” But by sticking with it, she said, “I reached another level of thinking.”
Not all of those who were accepted into IB stuck with the program. Some didn’t even start it.
Students from the class of 2016 accepted into the program as sophomores peaked at 44 for West and 23 for East. Only nine completed the full diploma at West and seven completed it at East.
“We lost, I’d say, probably about 60 percent of the kids,” said Sherice Ortman, Waterloo Schools’ IB and advanced programming coordinator. “Many of those kids we absorbed with our Hawkeye classes or our AP courses.”
She said the students were a better fit for those advanced placement or Hawkeye Community College dual-enrollment classes. Seven students who didn’t stick with the whole program were allowed to take select IB courses.
Ortman noted that the IB diploma is more rigorous than those other options because classes continue over two years, rather than one. As evidence of the IB students’ success, she pointed out that they have earned more than $573,000 in college scholarships.
“One of the best results of IB, in my opinion, is that it forced us as a school system to look in the mirror,” said Matt Tracy, who teaches in East’s program. “And what we thought was extremely rigorous wasn’t necessarily. It’s disappointing that we lost some of those students, but it’s understandable.”
Patricia Patnode, who completed the IB program and graduated from West, believes after the group shrunk, “the people that were in it were a lot more committed to the program. I think it definitely weeded out people who are motivated by their parents versus intrinsic motivation.”
Patnode and other IB students still faced a learning curve.
East graduate Tyler Kamp noted, “The last two years it’s been a challenge, especially the workload — not being used to homework every day in every class. It’s taught me a lot about time management, setting priorities.”
“I had never really learned to study before,” added East graduate Jasmin Gardenier.
The group that just graduated didn’t have the menu of advanced, or pre-IB, classes that are now prerequisites for being accepted into the program. More than 400 students were enrolled in those courses during the past year.
A smaller group of juniors, 12 at each school, entered the program last fall. Among sophomores, those accepted into the program and planning to start in the fall include 19 at East and 15 at West.
“This is a blue collar program,” said Tracy. “First and foremost, it’s for workers. It’s not that you have it or not. It’s that you develop it.”
He noted that, unlike AP elective classes, students have to take the advanced courses in all IB subject areas. The district’s 12 class offerings during the past year were in language and literature; foreign language; individuals and societies, also known as history and economics; experimental sciences; mathematics; and the arts.
For Jacob Choate, a West graduate, there were moments of struggle when he wished the program was easier.
“Overall, I’ve found it’s worth taking because it challenges me to think differently, and I think that’s the biggest difference between AP and IB,” he said.
Choate learned to be open to other people’s opinions and beliefs, particularly through the theory of knowledge class where students discussed a physician-assisted suicide article.
“Instead of arguing our point, we looked at other people’s answers,” he recalled. “It opened our minds to what people think. It challenged my beliefs without attacking.”
Most students not used to struggling with classes before IB experienced it once they started working toward the diploma.
“You don’t have to be super smart to do it,” said Cara McKinstry, an East graduate who initially fell behind in some classes before getting back on track. “But you at least need a good work ethic and have to be willing to do what you need to succeed.”
“It’s more independent. That’s just something I wasn’t used to,” said West graduate William Huynh, who grappled with procrastination throughout the program. “IB, they guide you, but they don’t hold your hand.”
East graduate Cecilia Borwig explained, “I started out high school taking very easy classes. It was, in a way, a sock to the face.” Borwig said the difficulties “ended up being worth it” because of the skills she’ll take with her to college.
“I’m very grateful for this program,” said East graduate Merrsadiz Smith, though she admitted that “it hasn’t helped me GPA-wise. When we started, we were high-achieving students and IB broke us down.”
She and her classmates learned how to ask for help and rely on each other. In addition, they got involved in community service, something not reflected in a grade point average. “I’ve done so many things,” Smith noted, “that resume is insane.”
The homework was so difficult that West graduate Abbie Vickery sometimes didn’t finish it until 2 or 3 a.m. But she didn’t mind putting in the effort.
“It was really nice to be challenged for the first time in my life in school,” she said. “It definitely taught me a lot about perseverance.”
“IB presented me with really large challenges that I’ve never faced before,” said West classmate Noel Mills, professing her love for the program. “The process of overcoming those obstacles has empowered me to believe I can overcome many other academic obstacles.”
She added, “I was worried that being the first year, the teachers were going to be under-prepared,” she said. “After taking all of the IB exams I realized our teachers were really prepared and were preparing us for success.”
Liz Wagner, West’s IB history teacher, said before starting the program she received training specific to the International Baccalaureate program at Rice University, prepared with other district IB teachers during the summer and continued working with a mentor on West’s teaching staff during the year.
“I think they’ve been able to challenge themselves,” she said of her students. “I’m more there to facilitate what’s going on. I like that they’re helping to lead the discussion.”
Wagner and Tracy noted that since receiving the IB training, they strive to raise the level of teaching in their other classes, too.
West graduate Jasmine Briscoe said she liked “just reading literature from all parts of the world” — not only Western countries — and experiencing “different types of literature.” Briscoe’s classes exposed her to an Iranian graphic novel and the history of Myanmar, for example.
Mitchell Tessmer, an East graduate, was “quite bored” in school before IB helped him discover a “passion in the science fields.” He now plans on going into astrophysics and hopes to eventually become an astronaut.
Morgan Seeman, a West graduate, said “the program really amped up my skills and amped up my interest” in visual arts.
West classmate Ji-Un Roche said, “IB has helped me a lot. It made me certain of my ideals.” She is delaying college for a year and completing a year of service in an anti-bullying effort, fundraising and a month of relief work in Africa.
“I just see a high level of engagement and enthusiasm,” said Wagner, of her students. “I hope I taught them as much as they taught me.”