Paterson’s public International High School is about to graduate its first International Baccalaureate class, students who mastered a rigorous, Swiss-founded academic program more commonly associated with competitive private schools and wealthy districts.
“It’s very unique because we’ve had amazing support from our community, school board, parents, students, and district level administration and that’s not the case in every district,” said Catherine Forfia-Dion, principal of the so-called IB program at International High School.
The program, well-respected by colleges and universities, offers students access to such high-level courses as the Mandarin language, physics, and a philosophy-like class called “The Theory of Knowledge” during their junior and senior years. It also emphasizes a global perspective on learning and community service.
But IB takes years to institute at a school and has a high price tag of $11,650 per year in annual fees, plus costs for teacher training and for the IB exam — a test like the Advanced Placement exam that can earn a student college credit.
In Paterson, those costs are absorbed fully by the district, meaning students and families pay nothing for access to the program.
“You would need the dedication of Paterson to make this work,” she said.
City charting a unique path
Forfia-Dion said public schools are the fastest growing market for the IB program. According to the IB program website, more than 50 percent of IB schools across the globe are publicly funded. In New Jersey, only two of the 17 IB-authorized schools are private.
International High School in 2017 became the only school in Passaic County to offer students access into the IB diploma program. The 40 IB seniors graduating next week are boasting more than $2 million in scholarship awards and placement offers at impressive schools including: Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Pittsburgh, Lehigh University, American University, Rochester Institute of Technology, and the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
One of those graduates, Aamya Perez, 17, is headed to Penn to study nursing. She said the intensive IB program gave her a big advantage.
“There’s a stigma with all Paterson students that we have to work harder to overcome the challenges [of living in Paterson],” Perez said. “IB gave me an edge in many interviews with schools.”
Perez said the curriculum was “much harder” than anything she’d experienced in traditional classes in the district, but the stress was worth it.
“We’re not forcing ourselves to do anything. We took the initiative to go into the program. We have a lot of work and we have to manage that work so it’s about not procrastinating and having good time-management skills,” she said.
Hard work, but lots of support
IB kids and their parents are very clear that the program is not for everyone.
Amber Huq, whose IB-grad daughter Sarah will be attending Rutgers in the fall, said that at first she was nervous about including Sarah in the IB program.
“I’m not going to lie, it was hard,” Huq said. “I did feel that she was stressing out.”
But ultimately, she said, the amount of mentorship and guidance from teachers and administrators made it manageable.
“My daughter and her friends were always texting teachers, asking questions,” Huq said. “They don’t leave the child alone but they’re not handholding or babysitting either.”
This graduation has been a long time coming for Paterson.
The program was part of the district’s 2014-2019 strategic plan and the authorization process took three years. Two of those years were spent as a “candidacy” school, meaning teachers had to attend conferences and trainings to attain the minimum 16 hours of training that is required to teach any IB class.
And International High School had to align its mission and policies with the rulebook of the larger IB nonprofit education foundation based in Geneva. Those policies meant establishing a strict anti-plagiarism rule and a promise to commit to opening the IB program to any interested student.
Classes open to many
Not every student at International High completes the full diploma program of courses, but many take one or more classes as they go along.
According to state data, in the 2016/2017 school year, 64 percent of students at the school were enrolled in one or more AP/IB courses and 27 percent took one or more AP/IB exams.
Those numbers are unusual for an urban district like Paterson. While the state touts a 28 percent AP/IB-passing rate, low-income students remain underrepresented in that group. According to the DOE, of the slightly more than 36 percent of all students in New Jersey eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, just 16.4 percent took an AP exam, and 12 percent passed.
At International High School, 64 percent of students are eligible for either free or reduced-cost lunch.
Despite the stress and other obstacles, Perez said, she feels her class was well prepared by the IB program. “They cultivated students that are prepared for greatness,” she said.
“Patersonians, we’re great and like to encourage each other,” she said. “People outside may not have faith in us or our abilities, but we’re thriving and able to go to higher-up colleges that they may not have thought we were capable of.”