When Hellgate High School opens its doors next fall, nearly 100 students will begin a course of study that will test their minds in a way they’ve never been tested before.

Similarly, the debut of the International Baccalaureate Programme – commonly known as IB – will test the Missoula County Public Schools district’s commitment to leading education in a different direction.

Hellgate will be only the second high school in the state to have adopted IB and its rigorous, two-year education, testing and assessment model. Flathead High School was the first in 2004 and began handing out IB diplomas in 2006. (The private Missoula International School is also an IB school in the Primary Years Programme.)

Right now, 28 Hellgate sophomores have signed up for the full IB curriculum their junior and senior years – all six fields of study, the required 4,000-word “extended essay,” the Theory of Knowledge course, the commitment to community service and outreach (called “creativity, action and service”) and the $700 they and their families will plunk down for testing their senior year.

If they pass, they will have earned the IB Diploma – coveted not just for what it says about the student, but its ability to gild a transcript for college entrance boards and award university credit in advance.

One of them is Hellgate sophomore Kyle Thompson, son of Bill Thompson and Kim Holcolm.

“Lately I’ve been thinking about the Air Force Academy, and this program looks like a good way to get in,” said Thompson, who currently carries a 3.6 grade point average. “And it looks good on any transcript.”

And that is the chief push for IB proponents. Decent grades are no longer a guarantee for college acceptance, especially at top-tier universities. IB, they say, not only expands their post-secondary options, but also prepares them for collegiate study.

“These courses develop skills that translate well to the university setting – independent learning, research, time management skills,” said Kevin Ritchlin, who is the IB coordinator for MCPS and works out of Hellgate. “The benefit is that they take the students out of their comfort zone.”

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Critics say the downside is the cost – $10,000 per school per year, $150 per student per year, and $100 per test – while others have seized on the IB’s ties to the United Nations and environmental causes.

In fact, there is a whole website (truthaboutib.com) that is solely devoted to serve as a clearinghouse for numerous complaints about IB, including the charge that it is anti-American and promotes a radical environmentalist philosophy, and is or has been funded by various branches of the United Nations since it was first developed in Geneva, Switzerland in 1968.

As evidence for their point of view, the site points to the following from the IB’s mission statement:

“The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.”

A more evidence-based complaint, shared by some academics, is that IB is unproven in its efficacy, that it hasn’t been shown to be worth its cost when it comes to college entrance or success.

However, answer IB proponents, that is because state university systems have been far too slow in accepting IB and awarding its students. The College Board’s Advanced Placement (or AP) courses still remain the king of rigor when it comes to college entrance.

The Montana University System has largely gotten on board with IB. At UM and MSU, students can enter college as sophomores with up to 30 credits if they complete the IB diploma program with a score of 30 or better. So for about $1,000 in fees and testing, IB students and their families can save the cost of a year of college (again, depending on their scores). Various individual IB classes also award students with up to eight credits in English, biology, history and, at UM, visual arts and theater.

And as for the charge of anti-Americanism?

Ridiculous, said Kelli Higgins, IB coordinator at Flathead High School who describes herself “as American as they come.” The truth is that IB is global and international in its approach to and outlook on education, not anti-American.

“It’s an international program and anyone who feels that there’s going to be this world takeover, or that they’re infiltrating our schools, is ignoring the idea that there is another world out there,” she said. “We can’t think it’s bad to study what’s going on in the world.”

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For more than 50 years, advanced placement has been the standard for upper-level high school learning. Thousands of schools and school districts incorporate it in science, history, social studies and mathematics to serve their most gifted students.

All four of Missoula’s traditional high schools offer AP, and that’s not going to change, said MCPS regional administrator Heather Davis Schmidt, whose region includes Hellgate. Hellgate has no plans to drop its AP courses, instead offering IB as an alternative for students and parents.

“This provides a different opportunity for students, not a replacement opportunity,” she said.

That’s not the case at Flathead, which phased out AP courses after IB was adopted in 2004. Students and parents who want to stick with AP are given the chance to attend nearby Glacier High School, said Higgins.

As in Missoula, Flathead Valley students have a choice between the two programs. But Higgins said IB does have a more holistic, global perspective than AP, and that it’s better suited for some students.

“IB is a very rigorous academic program, so students walk out well prepared for college,” she said. “That’s similar to AP, but IB has a mission statement devoted to young people and how they can be a positive influence in their community.”

And that’s why Flathead senior Elena Musz signed up for IB last year. Musz, 18, is taking the full diploma slate of courses.

“I like it because it’s really rigorous, but it’s also really independent,” said Musz, whose 4,000-word essay she’s developing studies the music of Louis Armstrong and its impact on the civil rights movement. “You choose your own area of study, and what you want to learn about. ... AP classes are separate, so you can take one and learn a lot about a specific subject, but IB classes are more global in perspective.”

The difference between AP and IB is that the latter involves much more cross-disciplinary learning – between science and the arts, history and the humanities, said Ritchlin, who taught in Big Sky’s American studies program for six years and also taught in Holland and Argentina.

Students in IB history, for example, don’t just learn history – they uncover it in their own research.

“That’s the focus,” he said. “Students are building skills, and not just learning information about a subject. In history, they’re not just learning about history. They’re learning how to be historians. And that’s a fundamental difference.”

Tying all the fields of study together is what the Theory of Knowledge course offers, as well as the required 4,000-word essay and the community outreach and service component.

Another difference is the level of teacher training – and the costs associated with it.

Unlike in the AP program, IB teachers must go through initial training in the program to be certified. More than two dozen Hellgate teachers have or will have gone through weeklong training seminars this year.

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The initial cost of implementing IB is around $80,000 – and most of that is in teacher training. The district has not spent any money from its general fund on the program. A $50,000 grant from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation two years ago provided most of the needed funds.

Higgins, who went through the training herself, said teachers leave the training seminars “on fire” for the program and their jobs.

“It’s so inspirational,” she said. “It’s the best professional development I’ve ever had, bar none.”

IB teachers are honest with their students from the start – they tell them that IB studies require nothing less than a full commitment, said Ritchlin.

And with scores determining college credit, they have to be. But consistency is also critical when it comes to test scores. IB tests and the IB scoring system is “thoroughly vetted,” Ritchlin said. Those who score the tests (all tests are sent out of state) are themselves critiqued, and even those critiques are critiqued.

That’s created a very predictable and standardized scoring system, in which students and teachers know exactly what they need to do to succeed.

“Kids know from day one what they’re going to have to accomplish,” he said.

Thompson, the Hellgate sophomore, has been told what to expect – a lot of work. He’s betting that the rewards will be worth it.

“It will take a bit of time to adjust my schedule, because they told me it would mean 20 more hours of homework a week,” he said.

Full diploma students also sacrifice electives – there is simply no room for them, in most cases, in the IB schedule.

Thompson’s parents were at first hesitant to see their son tackle the full program. But they support him fully today.

“They were kind of iffy because it does take a lot of time and attention, and you have to have a lot of persistence,” said Thompson, who plans to emphasize mathematics in his IB studies. “You have to be confident, because if you fall behind at all you will stay behind.”

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

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