When Mayor Rahm Emanuel heard that a Consortium on Chicago School Research study found that students in small programs nestled in neighborhood high schools tended to beat the expected odds by winning admission to good colleges–and staying in them—he was determined not to let the research gather dust on a shelf.”

 On Friday, Emanuel appeared at Curie High School to announce that CPS would open five wall-to-wall International Baccalaureate high schools in 2013, as well as five additional programs within neighborhood schools.

The University of Chicago study looked at the impact of the IB program in 12 neighborhood high schools. Based on data for students who graduated between 2003 and 2007, the study found that students who graduated from the IB program were 40 percent more likely to attend four-year colleges and 50 percent more likely to attend more selective colleges.

The highly regarded International Baccalaureate program was originally designed for children of diplomats to make sure that, even as they traveled from country to country, they would be exposed to the same rigorous curriculum. 

Up until 1996, Lincoln Park High School had the city’s only IB program, and the school kept selective. But then-CEO Paul Vallas expanded the program, despite concerns that few students in neighborhood schools could make it through the curriculum.

Since the expansion into 12 neighborhood high schools, the growth of the IB program slowed and IB students in CPS are less likely to earn a full IB diploma than in other places, according to the Consortium study released Thursday.

However, in addition to being more likely to go to college and remain enrolled, the IB students were also likely to go to more selective colleges than comparable students. In surveys, the IB students reported that they felt more prepared for college coursework.

Melissa Roderick, a Consortium researcher and one of the authors of the study, says she was wowed by the results. Roderick has researched college access and persistence for a number of years, and wrote in the study’s summary that no other program has had such an effect on college persistence.

“These students are amazingly successful,” Emanuel said Friday. He was flanked at Curie by a group of former students from Curie’s IB program, who reported that they are finding college easier than high school.

CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said the details of the plan to develop IB high schools and more IB programs have not been worked out yet. District officials will work with community action councils and the chiefs of high school networks to figure where the new programs should be located and how they will be set up.

Though the existing programs have some level of selectivity, Brizard said he does not envision that there will be many barriers preventing students from enrolling. “They will be [in] neighborhood schools where students choose to go,” he said.

The primary added cost of IB programs covers a coordinator and training for teachers in how to use the IB curriculum. The current programs each cost the district from $150,000 to $175,000 per year.

 IB programs do not require an entrance exam. But Emanuel said he envisions that they will provide new options for students who now clamor to get into the district’s nine selective enrollment schools.

As he campaigned for office, Emanuel said he shook hands of parents as they waited in line to go to Lane’s open house.

“Parents are nervous about the opportunity for their children to go to a good high school,” he said. The additional IB high schools and programs will add to the city’s “educational toolbox.”

Curie’s IB coordinator, Sharyl Barnes, listened to the mayor’s press conference with a bit of skepticism in mind.  She said that choosing the right students and nurturing them is the key to a successful program, and that not every student will want to do four to five hours a night of homework–including numerous long essays.

A significant number of students who start out in the IB program during freshman year withdraw–almost 40 percent, according to the Consortium study.

Curie’s program interviews every student it accepts, but others consider ISAT scores and other factors.

Finding the right students is not always easy. Curie is one of the more attractive programs, with a lot of applications. The school has typically brought in 60 freshmen for IB, but plans next year to have a class of 136.

Other neighborhood IB programs that want to expand can struggle as they compete with selective enrollment schools. Hyde Park High School IB coordinator Deshonda Wright said she wants to increase the freshman IB cohort from 25 students to about 90.

Hyde Park sent out IB acceptance letters to about 200 students. So far, 56 are expected to enroll. Wright acknowledges that many are waiting to see if they can get into a selective enrollment school on the second round.

Wright points out that expanding the program might be challenging. IB students must be ready for hard work, deep conversations and the idea that it is a global curriculum.

“Sometimes the students say, ‘Why do we have to do this?’ ”she says. “I tell them, they are doing the same project at Lincoln Park, the same project at Curie, the same project in Vietnam.”

The students in Hyde Park’s IB program think that bringing more students in would be a good thing. Many of them say that they were disappointed when they didn’t win spots in a selective enrollment school. One girl notes that Hyde Park was her backup program and she really didn’t know much about it when she received an acceptance letter.

When they got to the school, the students say they quickly learned they would be together as a cohort and would be pushed to do hard work. The same group of students stays together in every class, usually staying late and helping each other out.

They say that few withdraw from the program. Moesha Wade said she likes the challenge. “This is getting me ready for college.”

IB Diploma coordinator Denise Everhart says that every one of her graduates goes to college, and last year their average ACT score was 20. Among Hyde Park’s general program, about half of graduates go to college and the average ACT score is 14.

Yet the Hyde Park IB students say that there are other students in the school who would benefit from the rigor. At the moment, those students might think they can’t, or don’t want to, do the work. But they can be convinced otherwise.

“I think everyone should be part of the IB program,” says Briana Hayes. “We would have doubted our abilities too, if we hadn’t been pushed to do it.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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