rigor mortis?

Proposed changes to storied program roil Denver high school

The recommendations call for George Washington High to get $6.7 million for upgrades or renovations.

Update after Saturday’s meeting, May 10, 2 p.m.

When the Saturday morning meeting about proposed changes to George Washington High School’s International Baccalaureate program got off to a raucous, even unruly start in the school library, a mixed group of IB and non-IB students decided to take matters into their own hands.

As angry parents who had expected an open forum but found themselves in a less interactive session  tried to shout down Denver Public Schools administrators, a group of about 20 students calmly retreated to a computer lab and spent 90 minutes devising their own list of recommendations.

The student gathering was impassioned but calm and when two students started talking at once, one of their peers chimed in with “C’mon, guys, let’s not be like the parents.”

For their part, parents said they had legitimate reasons to be angry. They cited a letter penned last week by GW Principal Micheal Johnson that promised the meeting would “address any questions or concerns that may arise about our future direction.” Instead, DPS officials made it clear from the outset that they were not going to answer questions but rather would hold “breakout sessions” on “becoming a destination high school,” “improving communications and school culture,” and ensuring academic excellence for all students.”

Parents said they felt impending changes to one of DPS’ most academically successful programs were sprung on them with little notice and no opportunity for them to provide input. “This was all done sub rosa,” said Leslie Lilly, whose son is an IB program 10th-grader. 

Over 200 people packed the meeting. The number of people opposed to or concerned about the changes appeared to outnumber supporters by a 4-1 margin.

The idea behind Johnson’s proposed changes is to open up the elite academic IB program to more students, which currently is open almost exclusively to students who apply in eighth grade, are accepted and begin the four-year program at the start of their high school career.  Several IB students said the concept of more open access was admirable, but the proposed execution was deeply flawed.

Kevin Omana, 18, is an IB senior, an undocumented student who came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was three. He said his time at Denver’s Cole Middle School “didn’t even come close” to preparing him for the rigors of IB. “I stayed up until midnight studying until I caught up,” he said.

Omana called the proposed dismantling of the pre-IB program “appalling,” because a rigorous course of study in grades nine and 10 is the only way to prepare for the Diploma Program, which spans grades 11 and 12. He said he has seen no evidence that the GW administration sought feedback from IB students or parents about the changes.  If they had asked him he said, he would have told them that with the changes, the school is “setting up all students who come here for failure.”

He was part of the group of students who came up with their own plan, which was presented to a smaller and somewhat calmer group of parents at the conclusion of the three-hour meeting. Instead of abolishing pre-IB, the students suggested, it should be opened up to any students who wanted to take on the challenge. But the program must not under any circumstances be made less rigorous, they said.

The problem at GW, several students said, is the “closedness” of the IB program combined with what they said was the poor quality of the school’s honors and Advanced Placement classes leaves motivated students not in the IB program with no real recourse.

One student said she was so poorly prepared by her AP Spanish class this semester that she wept while taking the AP exam because she knew she had no chance of passing.

So the student group recommended a substantial strengthening of the honors/AP track at GW. A strong honors program at the ninth and tenth-grade level would allow students to choose between a strong AP program or the IB Diploma Program, they said.

Student body President Jahnee Hughes said the problem up to now has been that AP has been “under IB’s shadow. There just hasn’t been a huge focus on it.” She said the school’s administration and “traditional parents” need to be more engaged in supporting the honors and AP programs.

Then, looking around the room where students worked diligently on a  plan with no adult supervision, she said: “It’s crazy that we had to head into this room to have our own meeting.”

Original story starts below:

Changes are coming to the storied International Baccalaureate program at Denver’s George Washington High School, and some students, parents and teachers connected to the program are up in arms.

George Washington principal Micheal Johnson says his school needs to provide better educational opportunities to more of the school’s students, and that the changes he is pushing will do that without watering down IB.

For almost 30 years, the IB program at GW has educated a small group of high-performing students and sent many of them off to some of the nation’s most elite colleges. The rigorous four-year program admits students based on grades, test scores, teacher recommendations and interviews. Ninth- and tenth-grade students take “pre-IB” courses to prepare them for the rigors of the IB Diploma Program, which spans grades 11 and 12 and whose curriculum is set by an international organization.

Just over 400 of GW’s 1,424 students are enrolled in the program.

Johnson, in his second year as principal,  will present details at a meeting tomorrow at 9 a.m. in the school library. Those who oppose the changes are expected to turn out in force.

The changes are coming to pre-IB, which is not part of the official International Baccalaureate Organization curriculum, but rather a school-designed preparatory program that has been part of GW’s IB program since its inception in 1985.

Eighth-graders apply to the IB program, which encompasses pre-IB and the Diploma Program. If admitted, they take all core courses exclusively with other IB students for four years, making the IB program in effect a small, elite school within a larger urban high school. IB students do participate in elective classes, sports and other extracurricular activities with the rest of the student body.

Johnson plans to do away with the pre-IB program a year from now and replace it with an honors program that is open to all GW students the school deems ready for rigorous academic classes. This means there would no longer be a selective admissions system for IB, and students interested in pursuing an IB diploma would take ninth and tenth grade honors classes with students working towards Advanced Placement classes or other offerings at GW.

In an interview, Johnson said that the changes, which would go into effect in the 2015-16 school year, are necessary because significant “opportunity gaps” exist at his school, and “a lot of times we don’t grab some of the students who could be benefitting from [more rigorous academics].” The IB program is heavily skewed towards more affluent students, district data shows, despite the fact that the majority of GW students come from low-income backgrounds.

The school also received a grant earlier this year to launch a major expansion of its Advanced Placement program beginning next school year. Students who successfully pass either IB or AP exams can gain significant college credit.

Johnson said he started pondering changes to GW’s higher-level course offerings when, during conversations with students, he heard complaints about the quality of classes outside of the IB program. Students expressed frustration that “in one area of the school there is great education and in another area it’s just OK.”

“Out of the mouths of children comes the reality of what we have to look at as educators,” he said.

Johnson also hopes the changes will help reverse GW’s steadily declining enrollment. Currently, two-thirds of students who have GW as their neighborhood school opt to go elsewhere.

But some IB parents, teachers and students are opposing the changes, saying they are bound to water down the rigor of the four-year experience and leave rising 11th-graders unprepared for the rigors of the diploma program. Currently all pre-IB courses are taught by teachers who also teach the Diploma Program courses.

“Without taking specific classes that prepared me for the actual IB program, I think I would be failing every class right now,” one IB 11th-grader wrote in an email to Johnson this week.

But Johnson said the core of the program would remain untouched. IB courses in the Diploma Program at GW will remain reserved exclusively for students pursuing the diploma. At some schools with IB programs, students not pursuing an IB diploma can take individual IB classes.

Saturday’s meeting, scheduled for two-and-a-half hours, is likely to be contentious, though Johnson plans to spend much of the time briefing the group on the outlines of his plan.

“I don’t think he wants our input,” said IB parent Kristen Tourangeau.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”