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Austin, DHS get IB OK

By Bayne Hughes
DAILY Education Writer

hughes@decaturdaily.com 340-2432

The wait was excruciating. E-mails were checked often, even on weekends. Principals grabbed the morning mail, hoping for news.

The news of Austin and Decatur high schools' acceptance into the International Baccalaureate Organization's Diploma Program arrived Monday in e-mails from the organization's director general, Jeffrey R. Beard, with the promise of a formal letter to follow.

Decatur becomes the first Alabama school system north of Birmingham and one of five in the state to offer the honors program for juniors and seniors.

The letter comes almost seven months after an International Baccalaureate inspection team visited the two schools. School officials got a hint from IB in March that notice might come the first of May.

"It's just such a sense of relief," Decatur High Principal Mike Ward said. "I was never really worried that we wouldn't get accepted, but it's nice to finally know."

City officials hope International Baccalaureate will give Decatur an advantage in recruiting newcomers, business and industry, especially with the upcoming Base Realignment and Closure commission's plan to bring as many as 10,000 jobs to Redstone Arsenal. Huntsville City Schools is looking at possibly starting IB, but that school system is just beginning the investigative process.

"This is an outstanding opportunity for us," said John Seymour, president and chief executive officer of Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce. "This is something that sets us apart from other communities when one thing can be a big difference."

Director of Curriculum Jeanne Payne went with the chamber on a BRAC recruiting trip to Arlington, Va. She said students there are already taking IB, and their parents wanted to know about transferring into Decatur and Austin's programs.

"They were really excited to hear we were applying for IB," Payne said.

Superintendent Sam Houston and school officials became interested in bringing this internationally known program to this city about five years ago after visiting an IB program in Raleigh, N.C.

A visit to the Jefferson County IB School sealed their desire to bring the program to Decatur. Newsweek magazine ranked Jefferson County as the No. 1 high school in America last year and No. 2 this year.

School officials and teachers then began attending a series of training sessions in several U.S. cities, including Raleigh, Pensacola, Fla., and Denver.

"This is a testament to the tremendous amount of work our folks put in to make this happen," Houston said. "Mike and (Austin Principal) Don (Snow) did a great job of leading their people."

Snow said he looks at acceptance as validation for what his teachers at Austin are doing. He also believes it will open doors on the collegiate level for his students. Last year about 90 percent of The University of Alabama's Presidential Scholars were International Baccalaureate Diploma graduates.

Susan Giguere, Austin's IB coordinator, said she likes that students will become close to fluent in a second language through the program. IB also requires 150 hours of community service and a Theory of Knowledge class.

"The Theory of Knowledge class really ties all of the disciplines together," Giguere said. "The students will learn how math, science, language arts and history work together."

Kim Qualls, Decatur's IB coordinator, said teachers get the top training through IB, and they have to submit themselves to IB evaluation.

"We have to send off the IB exams to other places, and they'll let us know if they don't think a teacher is doing well in teaching the class," Qualls said.

Both schools had class registration in April. Ward said 11 Decatur High juniors-to-be registered for the Diploma Program, while Snow said seven registered for the program at Austin.

While both administrators hoped the program would generate more interest, they said the small numbers were not unexpected. Both said they believe fear of the unknown and the uncertainty of whether the schools would get approval kept numbers low.

Houston said Jefferson County only had eight in its first year. He estimated more than 200 students now attend that county's magnet school.

The administrators said students worried that the Diploma Program might be so time-consuming that they couldn't get involved in extracurricular activities like sports and band. They tried to reassure students that while the program is rigorous, it won't keep them from participating in the activities they love.

"The unknown is always a deterrent," Ward said.

Houston hopes now that International Baccalaureate is a certainty, several businesses and individuals will help offset the cost of IB Diploma tests. Each student takes six $70 exams during a two-year period.

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