Vernon and King take first steps toward offering rigorous baccalaureate credit

Two Northeast Portland schools will soon get their shot at achieving 'greatness,' a goal Superintendent Vicki Phillips discussed Wednesday at her first State of the Schools address.

The principals at King School, 4906 N.E. Sixth Ave., and Vernon School, 2044 N.E. Killingsworth St., are in the beginning stages of applying to the Geneva-based International Baccalaureate Organization so they can offer the rigorous International Baccalaureate program, Vernon Principal Joan Miller said.

The application process is lengthy, grant requests are pending and there is a lot of teacher training involved, but the first parts of the program could be introduced at the start of the next school year, she said.

'Vernon has spent the last eight to 10 years improving achievement scores,' said Miller, in her fourth year at the school. 'It's been a real steady uphill climb, from fewer than 20 percent meeting benchmarks to over 90. We say this is good, but it's not enough, because now they're passing the multiple-choice tests in math and reading. What's measured on multiple choice tests is basic skills. What we know they'll need in high school and beyond is higher thinking.'

The idea is for students to attend Vernon and King in their elementary- and middle-school years (since both schools are phasing in seventh and eighth grades), and then move on to Jefferson High School, where district leaders also are planning to introduce an IB program.

Founded in 1968, the International Baccalaureate Organization offers programs in 124 countries, serving students from ages 3 to 19. In Portland, the IB is only offered at Lincoln in Southwest and Cleveland in Southeast. The Jefferson cluster effort would be the first K-12 IB program in the state.

The initiative was one of many mentioned Wednesday by Phillips, who also cited the district's stepping up achievement over the next several years as one of her goals. 'We are on our way to great,' she said, 'but not yet great enough.'

The IB effort will come with some big challenges. First is funding, with the hefty costs of intensive teacher training, application fees and annual fees.

Vernon has applied for a $52,000 grant from the Portland Schools Foundation, to start, which would fund professional development as well as allow parents and teachers to visit some of the IB programs in other similar schools around the country, as Miller did in New York.

'I was really impressed,' she said. 'Their school is very much like ours in terms of demographics, but it was very clear the whole school was organized, committed to this, working together.'

It's not the only change at the school. Vernon recently was named a NASA Explorer School, with grant money to focus on math and science and events such as a videoconference with scientists who'll be in Antarctica in December.

Building on that focus, Miller said the first phase-in of the IB program probably will be with the science curriculum. The school also would look to hire a Spanish teacher, since a foreign language is a required element of the IB program.

Community support's key

Another challenge will be garnering community support, a critical element to any IB program, educators say.

'We have significant parent support, fundraising activities done yearly to support everything,' said Jennifer Wiandt, an English teacher who coordinates the IB program at Cleveland.

The school has boomed in enrollment in the past two years, she said, from 1,350 to about 1,500, in large part due to the five-year-old IB program as well as its strong offerings in art, music, science and other subjects.

About 700 Cleveland students participate in IB, with about 20 to 40 each year graduating with an IB diploma, a rigorous curriculum that is recognized around the globe.

But the school is constantly focused on fundraising to keep it going, Wiandt said.

The school uses its discretionary funds from the district as well as parent contributions for program costs such as the $3,100 annual fee to the IB organization and evaluation fees every five years. It costs $500 to send a teacher to a training workshop out of town.

Andrea Morgan, an education specialist with the Oregon Department of Education, said many school districts become interested in IB, only to back off when they're faced with the high costs and strict requirements of teacher training. Schools must make it a priority in their budget if they're going to support it, she said.

The payback is big, Wiandt said. Cleveland is the only Portland high school that moved up a ranking in the recent state report cards, going from strong to exceptional.

The school attracts a high number of neighborhood kids as well as transfer students; because of space restrictions, Cleveland keeps its transfer slots limited to 250.

Program would be a draw

While Wiandt hadn't heard of the plan to implement IB in the Jefferson cluster, she said it sounds like a good way to give younger students more exposure to subjects like the fine arts, fields in which some high schoolers feel they're lacking background.

At Vernon, Miller said the reaction so far to the new standards is good. 'No one has expressed concern about it being too hard for our kids,' she said. 'The only concern teachers have had is time to do curriculum planning.'

In the end, she said, she thinks it will pay off. Enrollment is now at 450, nearly a quarter of which are transfer students. Many new families to the area choose to send their kids elsewhere, she said, not realizing that the school has made big strides.

'This would be something we'd hope to turn around,' she said. 'There's always that carry-over when a school has a bad reputation. It takes a while to get out of that lore, and for people to realize it's actually a good place to send their kids.'

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