International Baccalaureate: A class by itself

Rigorous academics and 'family' spirit flourish at Foss

2/9/2017 | TACOMA, Washington

You may not have heard of the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma program, but its worldwide alumni include some distinguished names:

  •     Justin Trudeau, current Canadian Prime Minister
  •     Maria Catena, director of the United Nations World Food Program
  •     Dustin Moskovitz, co-founder of Facebook
  •     King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands
  •     Ken Jennings, record-breaking “Jeopardy” champion
  •     Lupita Nyong’o, Academy Award-winning actress

They all earned IB diplomas, as have some notable graduates of Foss IB World School.

Eduardo Penalver, a 1990 Foss graduate, went on to become the dean of Cornell Law School in New York. After graduating from Foss he earned a B.A. at Cornell, a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, and got his law degree from Yale. Penalver’s stellar career includes a stint as law clerk for Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. He’s also the first person of Latino descent to become dean of an Ivy League law school.

"The IB program at Foss set me on a path for success in college,” Penalver said. “The transition from Foss to my freshman year at Cornell was seamless. I felt equipped to compete in the classroom with students who had attended some of the most exclusive private prep schools in the country. I remain indebted to Foss for the education I received there."

So what is International Baccalaureate, and what kind of student pursues an IB diploma?

Created in 1968 by a consortium based in Geneva, Switzerland, the IB founders originally designed it as a common, highly challenging curriculum schools around the world could teach and that colleges and universities worldwide would accept. 

A small number of students join the ranks of International Baccalaureate graduates each year through the IB program at Foss. Younger Tacoma students may enter IB through McCarver Elementary and Giaudrone Middle School, which offer world IB programs created specifically for primary and middle years students. Tacoma’s open enrollment system, in which students can choose a school that best fits them, makes it possible for a student to spend their entire Tacoma school career in IB. Whittier Elementary and Wainwright Intermediate schools have begun their multi-year effort toward becoming accredited IB schools too.

Foss IB Coordinator Daniel Erickson said IB’s focus on collaboration and developing interpersonal skills forms the foundation for everything else. The program seeks to develop 10 “learner profile” traits in students:

  • Inquirers
  • Knowledgeable
  • Thinkers
  • Communicators
  • Principled
  • Open-minded
  • Caring
  • Risk-takers
  • Balanced
  • Reflective

“Aside from the rigor of the courses, we’re trying to develop internationally-minded critical thinkers who are caring and want what’s best for everybody,” Erickson said. “There’s an interdisciplinary approach to IB that doesn’t exist in other courses. It creates connections with intention. So you might be learning Spanish, and in your English class reading and analyzing a work by a Spanish playwright. Or they might be doing some interconnected project in history having to do with World War I, and at the same time learning about phosgene and mustard gas (both chemical weapons used in World War I) in chemistry class. So there’s this cross-curricular stuff going on, with amazing regularity, that doesn’t happen anywhere else.”

The students following IB diploma tracks say the program offers clear academic benefits, while requiring a major commitment of effort and intensity.

Maria Garcia, a senior at Foss, says the rigor of IB inspired her to take her studies much more seriously.

“Before I got into IB, I discovered I could give half effort, or not try very hard, and still get good grades,” she said. “I wasn’t giving my full effort. With IB you can’t get away with that. That’s a push I definitely needed.”

No stranger to hard work outside of school, the soft-spoken Garcia said her parents work different shifts—one morning and one evening—so she spends a lot of time helping to care for her four younger siblings. Perhaps not coincidentally, she wants to study psychology when she goes to college.

“I love the challenge,” she said. “It was a nice wake-up call.”

Not all Foss students follow the IB diploma path, but the students who do say the effects show up in the rest of the student body anyway.

“Being at Foss, you’re still in the IB environment,” said junior Rachel Schmit. “The main point of IB is that you have to question a lot more and think on a universal level. One of my favorite classes is pre-Calculus; we do abstract math. The teacher will pull out a football, for example, and show us how if you draw a triangle on it the angles will actually add up to more than 180 degrees (the sum of angles of a triangle drawn on a flat plane always equal exactly 180 degrees). He wants us to be able to use our knowledge beyond the classroom.”

“IB pushes you to a point where if you don’t take it you kind of don’t know how high you can reach,” Garcia said. “In my Spanish class, all the seniors look at an issue that’s going on in a Spanish-speaking country. And they have to relate it to a global issue as well, and write a big assignment about it. So it’s not just to practice your Spanish and get a grade. There are so many IB students here, whether full or partial IB, that everyone is surrounded by it, and pushed by that atmosphere of hard work and motivation.”

“For example, history,” added junior Janae Paige, whose brother Antoine teaches U.S. History and AP Geography at Foss. “The difference is how IB challenges you to answer extended questions, and encourages you to elaborate and extend your thinking, instead of having the same standard answer."

“You don’t have to do IB if you don’t want to,” said junior Avery Kilfoyle, who originally came to Foss for the wrestling program. “I learned about IB last year. I was taking an advanced placement class and doing really well in it, and the teacher suggested I try IB, and I said okay.”

“IB also creates this community,” Schmit said. “IB bonds students together. It doesn’t matter if they’re partial or full or not even in an IB class. I can still talk to them about it. I can’t count the number of times it’s been really late at night, but I’ve still been able to log in to our group chat and get someone to review an essay I just wrote.”

“The IB program, we’re all a family,” Paige said. “We all come from different backgrounds. Without IB we’d all be off doing our separate things. Sometimes when our history teacher tells us something, I have no idea what he’s talking about. But I know I can ask Rachel, or some of my other friends, to help me understand, and we collaborate. So yeah, it kind of throws us in the deep end. But that’s what I love about IB. It’s not just here to bring you to graduation. It helps you develop social skills. And when you go off to college, it’s the same thing—you can’t slack off, you have to maintain everything.”

Speaking of college, all of the students have college plans. Paige wants to do something in the medical field, possibly through the University of Washington Medical School.

“It’s a huge challenge, and totally expensive, but I know I can do it,” she said. “It would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I figure go hard or go home.”

Schmit lives in the Mount Tahoma High School area, but used Tacoma’s open enrollment policy to enroll at Foss specifically for IB. “I want to go to Stanford,” she said. “I want to be either a computer scientist or a neurologist. So I’m going to be applying to multiple colleges, but if I got into Stanford that would be incredible.”

Garcia, just a few months from graduation with an IB diploma, credits the program with expanding her horizons to include college.

“It takes you out of your comfort zone,” Garcia said. “It makes you see the world as it is. IB takes you outside whatever is going on in your personal life and gives you perspective on what’s going on around the world. Without IB I wouldn’t step out, I’d be in my own little box. It sparked an interest in me that I didn’t know I had.”