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Comprehensive education program creates bright future for all students

Western Washington district turns around low achievement with help from International Baccalaureate

The front page of a Seattle newspaper proclaimed Renton High School had the worst graduation rate in western Washington in 2003. With just over 50 percent of students graduating, drastic measures needed to be taken.

The opportunity to force real change arose with the announcement of the Race to the Top grant in 2009. Seven districts located in low-income, diverse communities in the Seattle area, including Renton, joined together in 2010 to form the Road Map Project consortium. Leaders in the Road Map Project applied for and won $40 million in Race to the Top funds in 2012. The goal of the project is simply to increase the number of students who are on track to graduate from college or be career-ready when they graduate high school.

“We want to ensure all students, regardless of economic status or race, have some options available to them,” says Damien Pattenaude, assistant superintendent of learning and technology for Renton School District, and former principal of Renton High.

One method for ensuring college and career readiness is increasing the rigor of high school courses. Pattenaude had been exposed to the International Baccalaureate (IB) program in a previous district and was impressed with how it increased student achievement. Renton High’s assistant principal and a committee of 46 stakeholders performed a feasibility study during 2011-12, and decided to move forward with implementing IB.

IB can be taken as a full diploma program by juniors and seniors in the 1,300-student Renton High. Alternatively, students may take select IB courses. By engaging in the IB program, students are encouraged to think critically and learn how to learn. All IB diploma students must complete an extended essay and theory of knowledge course, and fulfill creativity, activity and service hours.

“IB serves as a lever to improve student learning,” says Pattenaude. “It provides the curriculum to meet end goals, and methods for instruction and monitoring student progress.”

During the 2012-13 school year, the district hired an IB coordinator to assist in completing the IB application. In 2013-14 the school was officially authorized to offer IB courses. The first IB diploma students will graduate in June 2016.

To encourage schoolwide buy-in and to promote systemic change—even though only junior and senior students take IB courses—every teacher is encouraged to think of themself as an IB teacher, and all freshman and sophomore students should assume they will be taking IB courses. Eighty-five percent of Renton High senior students take at least two IB courses, despite the fact that 15 percent of students require special education services, and nine percent are English language learners.

IB eliminates barriers that traditional honors classes had often put up in Renton High in the past, says Pattenaude.

“All students are being pushed and being provided support to succeed, including students who may not have been expected to succeed within previous structures,” he says.

Students are performing comparatively better in IB courses than they had in standard and AP courses. Nearly half of students passed the IB Biology assessment in the course’s first year.

Eighty-seven percent of students who receive free and reduced lunch take at least two IB courses, as do 91 percent of black students. “You don’t see numbers like that in most high schools in this country,” says Pattenaude.

The increased rigor at the high school level will inspire the area’s feeder elementary and middle schools, Pattenaude hopes.

“We want to create a districtwide culture of college and career readiness,” says Pattenaude. “IB provides the structure that is aligned to that focus.”

To read recent research IB has done on student learning, visit http://DAmag.me/rb and http://DAmag.me/fr. For more information, visit www.ibo.org