Illustration by Jon Krause
Tractors and massive thresher machines remain common along U.S. 301 in this slowly suburbanizing area of Hanover County, hogging a road still lined with fields of soybeans and corn, while occasionally log-jamming streams of yellow buses filled with Hanover High School students.
Belied by the pastoral scenery is the fact that Hanover High houses what may be one of the most horizon-expanding, cosmopolitan educational programs in the Richmond metropolitan area.
Hanover High and its sister high schools in the county — Lee-Davis, Atlee and Patrick Henry — are part of an effort at Hanover County Public Schools to set its educational bar as high as possible, ironically by lowering a bar that other area districts use to limit the number of students who are able to participate in the International Baccalaureate diploma program.
International Baccalaureate, more commonly known simply as IB, is well known to Richmond-area parents. Certified by an international body and recognized the world over — Harvard allows IB diploma earners to start as sophomores — IB is at its essence a standardized curriculum that emphasizes critical thinking and learning how to learn.
In other area districts, it's a prestigious program available only to a select few who are accepted based on grades. In Hanover, anyone can sign up for one or more IB classes. Even for students planning to earn the diploma, there is no application process typical of IB programs elsewhere.
"I do believe that makes us pretty unique in this area — and probably in the country," says Bob Staley, Hanover's director of secondary education. "We don't have an application process. The main reason is we want to provide opportunities for all kids — not only for [IB] diploma students."
In most years Hanover, despite a student population that's roughly half that of Henrico County, runs neck and neck with its neighboring county for the number of IB diplomas it awards.
As rare as such an egalitarian program may be in the Richmond region, Hanover exemplifies the intent of the International Baccalaureate mission, says Gloria McDowell, senior head of school services for Maryland-based IB America.
"What transforms a high school is not to keep that good teaching behind closed doors for just some students in a diploma track," McDowell says.
The results are evident in the statistics.
The number of students earning IB certificates — awarded for successfully completing an IB class and scoring a pasing grade on the end-of-course test, but not receiving an IB diploma— has consistently increased over the years. In 2005, according to state statistics confirmed by the Geneva-based International Baccalaureate Organization, Hanover had 102 certificate earners. By 2011, nearly 250 Hanover students received certificates.
By comparison, Henrico handed out 13 certificates in 2005, and the most the county ever handed out is 48 in 2010.
Both Henrico and Hanover awarded 48 IB diplomas in 2011.
Nancy Lavier is Henrico County's IB specialist, and she oversees IB programs at two county high schools as well as IB Middle Years programs at three county middle schools.
Henrico's approach is more common in Virginia, using the IB program as one part of a constellation of magnet-school programs. In Henrico, Lavier says, students interested in the IB diploma or magnet schools in such diverse areas as arts, mass communications and various technology specialties apply for admittance and compete against other students for coveted slots.
"We are [IB] in its purest form, I think, of the localities," Lavier says. "When our students go into the high schools getting ready to take their classes, we assume every student is an IB diploma candidate."
It's a different approach from Hanover's, but it's no less valid, says McDowell. "I know Henrico pretty well, and they do a great job."
Richmond and Chesterfield County did not respond to requests for interviews by press time. Chesterfield's IB program is one choice among a menu of elite application-only magnet programs. Chesterfield graduates between 20 and 35 IB diploma students a year, while a similar number of students are certificate earners each year.
Richmond's program is also one of its select offerings — in the city's case aimed at keeping gifted students in the district rather than leaving for private school or the counties — but it has been less successful. The school system ran headlong into controversy earlier this year after it was discovered that it had been misreporting its annual IB diploma statistics to the state; since 2008, when Richmond began awarding IB diplomas, only a handful of students have actually graduated from the program.
Whether IB should be open to all or offered only to the best and brightest, McDowell says, is something that can be argued all day long.
"There is a tension here [at IB America] between what we call ‘access' ... and keeping the program small by making sure that every kid that goes through the program gets the diploma," she says, suggesting that the organization's own research seems to indicate that open access helps lift all students at a given high school.
Part of the reason, she says, is that IB teachers have specialized training that goes beyond traditional teacher training. And what they employ in the IB classroom filters into their regular classroom teaching — to the benefit of all students.
"One of the things that happens when you do this open approach is you have to train more teachers, and you have to ensure that you have a support mechanism for students that come in without the proper preparation," McDowell says, taking the view that "the diploma program is not [just] for the gifted and talented. It's for any normal student."
For Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield, where the respective school boards have chosen to focus their IB programs at a single school, some of the reasoning is about ensuring the highest degree of success, Lavier says, and there's good reason for that. Operating an IB program costs, at the barest minimum, about $10,000 per school each year. That's just the annual franchise cost paid to IB, which certifies the program and its accompanying diplomas and certificates. That fee doesn't include the roughly $100 per student, per exam, or the additional IB-certified training necessary for teachers in the program.
Which is why, Lavier says, "what we're looking for is that there has been some academic success there in the past — there has to be an alignment there with the expectations."
And once a student is accepted in the program — at least in Henrico — the county doesn't let them go even if it looks like they're not likely to complete all the course requirements to get the diploma. She says that most of their students receiving certificates are receiving a half-dozen or more of them — each often counts toward college course credit. And even without the diploma, these students remain in the top tier of all students graduating.
"We try to nurture them through the senior year, getting as many IB certificates as possible," Lavier says. "It's like being in the Olympics, and you made the qualifying rounds, but you didn't quite get a medal. They're still Olympians."
NOTE: This article has been corrected since publication.