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A student plan to equalize opportunity at George Washington High School

This is the first in a three-part series of First Person essays in which members of the George Washington High School community present their takes on the proposed changes to the school’s International Baccalaureate program. You can read all of Chalkbeat’s coverage of the proposed changes here

The students of George Washington High School are no strangers to change. We’ve lived through constant administrative transitions, staff who leave without notice, and the recent eradication of the school’s prized “senior wall” (a brick bench that only seniors had the privilege of sitting on).The student body greets most of these unannounced adjustments with feelings of exasperation.

However, when students heard that Denver Public Schools officials were planning to reform George Washington’s most high-profile academic program, the news was met with an unprecedented amount of fervor from the George community — both in support of and in opposition to changes to the International Baccalaureate program.

As a recent graduate of the traditional (non-IB) program at George, it has been easy for me to get on board with a plan that recognizes and addresses the achievement gap between the two academic programs and negative side effects that have taken a toll on the school culture.

But although the DPS plan does target a real issue, it lacks details on how the administration will cater to a diverse range of students with different academic abilities and needs. In an effort to bring actual value to DPS’s stated core value of “Students First,” an alternative “student plan” was created during a Saturday community meeting in May. This effort was led by me and my classmate Lauren McGovern.

In that meeting, IB and traditional students collaborated and created a plan under which DPS officials would meet the needs and prioritize the values of students in academics and school culture, instead of viewing the school exclusively through the lens of TCAP scores – a recurring theme of which George students are all too well aware.

This “student plan” grew out of the experiences of all students attending George, including my own experiences as a high-achieving student in the overlooked AP/Honors program. Upon entering George as a freshman, I was not aware of the IB program, and was never presented with the opportunity to apply for it.

Coming from Lotus School for Excellence, a small and rigorous STEM-focused K-12 charter school with fewer than 200 students, put me at a disadvantage. The school was new, and guidance counselors were not available to work with eighth-graders, because it was expected that we would continue our education at the same school until 12th grade.

When I finished eighth grade third in my class, I looked to Denver East as a school where I could develop myself even further in academics and extracurricular activities, but ended up at George Washington when I was not admitted to East as a choice-in student. I was immediately placed into an all traditional level course load, where I found myself in boring and unchallenging classes until my sophomore year.

After discovering my academic aptitude, I enrolled in all AP and honors courses through the rest of my tenure at George, and maintained a cumulative 4.0 GPA while balancing the responsibilities of holding seven leadership positions, including president of three clubs, and student body president of a prestigious pre-med program.

Being a student in the traditional program at George has always presented its own set of difficulties. It is becoming increasingly difficult for the many high-achieving non-IB students to take an all-AP and honors course load, especially after the elimination of three core-subject AP teachers at the beginning of the 2013-14 school year.

Six weeks into my senior year, my academic opportunities were reduced when my AP Biology class was eliminated because my teacher was cut for unexplained “budget reasons.” The day after that cut, an administrator came in and offered a hazy explanation to a room full of frustrated students about why the class would no longer exist . The reason offered didn’t satisfy most of us, though. Several students, including myself, had to skip an entire year of science credits, and others opted to take a gym class to meet the required number of courses.

The cut teachers were arguably some of the best in the AP/Honors program. Many of our probing questions about these cuts remain unanswered to this day, including why only AP teachers were cut, why those teachers in particular, and why this had to happen during the first six weeks of school.

Though the removal of these teachers might seem unfair, it’s nothing new at George. Non-IB students are all too familiar with receiving the short end of the stick. It’s not uncommon to see a teacher with both IB and AP classes (there are a few such teachers) put his or her AP class and its students’ needs on the back burner when it comes time for a big IB project.

The unfortunate reality is that it’s very common for non-IB students with a strong desire to learn and grow to receive a less than stellar education at George. This reality brought about another key point in the student plan, one that was met with great enthusiasm: open course selection.

IB students are presented with the opportunity to take AP classes as electives to further their studies, but AP students are not given the same opportunity with IB classes. With open course selection, AP students would pass an AP class, and then the next year could opt to take a High Level IB course in the same subject.

Ensuring that all students have the opportunity to take classes in subjects in which they excel would not only assist in mending the gap between the two academic programs, but would also increase the morale of AP students.

Struggling against feelings of inferiority is a common theme for most—if not all—non-IB students at George.  Some of my IB peers, and even parents of IB students, have insinuated that I am unintelligent upon hearing that I am a non-IB student. It’s a battle non-IB students have to face every day. So much focus is placed on the IB program that non-IB students, who are a majority of the school, feel ignored.

Providing comprehensive training for AP teachers to create a more focused and stronger curriculum in the AP program would be a great first step in addressing these issues. Adding more resources, including an AP coordinator with an office would prove an invaluable asset for AP/honors students. Even offering more AP and honors classes for students in all grades would ensure that the traditional program, with time, has a chance of becoming as strong an academic program at George as IB.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.