In a 1997 effort to stem the “brain drain” of talented 8th-graders leaving the Chicago Public Schools, CEO Paul Vallas tapped 14 neighborhood high schools to join the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO), a Swiss-based foundation working with schools to offer challenging curriculum that can lead to an internationally-recognized diploma and advanced standing for college students. Vallas also expanded the district’s Advanced Placement course offerings. Together, the new options for high-achievers in neighborhood high schools cost about $5 million. “They’re not budget busters, and they really help schools move along much faster,” said Vallas.

Previously, Lincoln Park High School had long been home to a highly-selective IB diploma program. Entering students outscored 90 percent or more of their peers on standardized tests, and many came from college-educated families. The new IB programs, by contrast, set their admissions bars lower, though still above average, and drew large numbers of low-income students with the potential to be the first in their families to attend college.

By 2001, Hubbard High School’s IB program was formally recognized and graduating its first class of IB diploma-eligible students. The new programs were also beginning to attract attention from parochial-school parents like Susan Figlio, whose son Joseph briefly joined Senn High School’s IB Middle Years program.

See: “Using AP, IB to change schools,” and “IB breaks a barrier at Senn, “ in “New tools to compete” Catalyst May 2001


Once the new IB programs had graduated a few classes of students, researchers began examining their impact on college attendance and persistence. They found good news. The first positive signs came with a DePaul University study that tracked 26 CPS graduates from IB programs and found they had earned an average GPA of 3.1 and that all stayed in college for at least two years.

In 2012, a larger study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research drew similar conclusions.  “In short, the IB diploma program appeared to be taking academically weaker, less-advantaged students coming into high school and producing graduates with academic achievement comparable to selective-enrollment high school graduates,” said the report authors.

The Consortium report sparked a swift reaction from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who announced five new high schools would join the IB network. Moreover, five additional high schools already involved with IB would take their efforts to a new level by creating “wall-to-wall” IB access, allowing every student some level of exposure to the program.

In fall 2012, the IBO launched a new, career-oriented program called the IB Certificate, which offers students interested in career and technical education the opportunity to take at least two IB Diploma courses, plus a sequence of career-related courses and a two-year seminar that culminates in a final project on an ethical issue in the career field of a student’s choice. Currently, the IBO has approved four CPS high schools to offer the IB Certificate: Clemente, Lincoln Park, Prosser and Taft.

By 2015, 22 high schools had been authorized to offer the IB diploma. Of these, seven   are now “wall-to-wall” IB high schools offering all students some level of exposure to the curriculum. The count includes one charter, a Noble Network campus led by a Lincoln Park IB graduate.

See “IB gives students a leg up in college,” Catalyst August 2005 and “CPS to expand International Baccalaureate program,” Catalyst March 2012


Expect continued expansion. CPS is encouraging more high schools to become approved to offer the IB Middle Years Programme, which serves middle-schoolers and students in their first two years of high school. Currently 11 high schools offer both IB Middle Years and the IB diploma. Increasingly, those schools are opening IB Middle Years to all freshmen and sophomores, who then choose whether to pursue the rigorous IB diploma in their last two years of high school.

See “IB program tackles career ed,” Catalyst February 2014, and “Noble Street campus to offer International Baccalaureate,” Catalyst April 2014

International map/Shutterstock

Freelancer Maureen Kelleher's work has appeared in Education Week and the Harvard Education Letter. She was an associate editor with Catalyst Chicago from 1998-2006.

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