Bekah S. McNeel

Local standards. State standards. National standards. Schools have plenty of plumb-lines for success. So why go one step further? Why add an international standard?

Candace Michael, the international baccalaureate (IB) coordinator for Burbank High School and the human powerhouse behind the school’s IB program, can give 17 million reasons. That’s how many dollars in scholarships universities offered to Burbank IB graduates in 2012. The class of 2013 will surpass that number.

Impressed yet? Look at who’s offering those scholarships. Burbank IB students have been accepted to MITNYUBrownNotre Dame, EmoryTexas A&MVanderbiltUT-AustinPrincetonJohns Hopkins, and Carnegie Mellon. I could go on, but space is an issue.

For those who want to see the program for themselves, the IB Program at Burbank will be the subject of the SAISD Foundation’s Spotlight on High-Performing Public Schools on Thursday at 7:45 am. It’s worth getting up early to be wowed – the achievements of IB students and graduates will be showcased during breakfast on the campus.

[Full disclosure: Robert Rivard is a member of the SAISD Foundation board.]

Graduates from Burbank’s IB programme can set their sights on almost any college they choose, a thought that 2013 Salutatorian James Garza finds incredible. “You’ve heard about Yale or MIT, but those would be dream schools you would never get in,” he said. “But then the kids next to you are getting in.”

He shrugs as if to say, and so you go get into Yale.

James Garza, Eliza Almeida-Trejo, and Nathaniel Saenz are college bound in a big way - Go, Burbank, Go!
James Garza, Eliza Almeida-Trejo, and Nathaniel Saenz are college bound in a big way – Go, Burbank, Go!

Garza’s path is even more selective than most. He will be attending Kettering University, and hoping for a competitive  co-op position with Toyota, which would bring him back to San Antonio to feed into the city’s emerging technology economy. His options are so rich that he has the luxury of keeping tight family ties, getting a stellar education, and setting himself on an enviable career path. Not a bad four-year-plan.

“I think IB is the best college prep you can get your hands on,” says math teacher Thad Flournoy, who has taught in private and prep schools. “Standards are clear, objective, and internationally accepted.”

That last attribute is one of the great strengths of the program. Founded in 1968, the IB Programme was designed to provide an internationally accepted high school certificate for students whose parents moved them between private schools across the world, all of which had different certificate programs for secondary education (“A-levels” of the UK, the French baccalauréat, etc.).  The program’s success made it appealing to private and state schools alike, and it has spread to 140 countries.

The SAISD Board of Trustees began working with Michael in 1995 to bring IB as a magnet program to Burbank – an application process that took five years to complete, and must be renewed every five years thereafter.

Michael isn’t afraid of some paperwork, though. Or even mountains of it. She passes this work ethic and no shortcuts mentality on to her students.

Carlos de Leon, Panfilo Ramirez, Candace Michael, and Thad Flournoy show off a their 2008 graduate banner. The list for 2013 is even more impressive.
Carlos de Leon, Panfilo Ramirez, Candace Michael, and Thad Flournoy show off a their 2008 graduate banner. The list for 2013 is even more impressive.

Rarely will an IB student encounter multiple choice, where sheer luck and test-taking skills can belie the test-takers true mastery of the subject. Instead, students articulate their understanding through short answer and essay questions … even in math. Needless to say, this comes in handy when applying for college, where application essays can be the one moment to stand out in a competitive applicant pool.

Even after they are accepted far and wide, with the academic confidence to stride into any classroom, many students still face a common hurdle. For young men and women coming from the inner city, their biggest challenge can be finding the courage to leave home.

“Their experience is [Loop] 410. This is all they know,” explains social studies teacher Carlos de Leon.

Faculty members seek to change this over the course of their high school career. No international education would be complete without international exposure. Students this year went on a trip to Peru.

“It expands their mind-frontiers in every respect,” Spanish teacher Panfilo Ramirez said.

“IB gave me a more global perspective,” said Senior Nathan Saenz.

Saenz chose to attend Texas A&M because he was impressed with the school’s meteorology program. “Even though I know Miss Michael wanted me to go to Middlebury,” he said with a sheepish glance at Michael.

Michael pushes the students toward the East Coast, where endowments are huge and Latinos are fewer in number than in the Southwest. Their background and economic status can qualify them for extra scholarship monies and grants. All of that on top of their IB diploma, soaring SAT scores, and writing skills … well, the Ivys are falling all over themselves.

Students also look to each other for inspiration. Whether it’s traveling the UK together from the University of Edinburgh or following a sibling’s footsteps to the Ivy Leagues, students get their courage from each other’s successes.

Burbank High School
Burbank High School

2013 Valedictorian Eliza Almeida-Trejo watched carefully as her sister studied hard and succeeded. “Seeing all of her accomplishments … I felt that the benefits outweighed the cost of staying up late.”

For Almeida-Trejo, those benefits turned out to be offers from Tufts, Carnegie-Mellon, Dartmouth, Rochester, and others. Now she is following her sister’s footsteps again, on to Notre Dame where she hopes to study aerospace engineering and continue on to grad school. Yes, she’s on course to become a rocket scientist.

Knowing the substantial demands of the program, Rachel Gonzalez gave her daughter a choice before enrolling in IB. But her older son had recently leveraged scholarship offers to get a handsome financial aid package from Baylor. His little sister was hooked. She not only entered IB, but became a one-girl marketing campaign, insisting that her friends apply as well.

Parents like Gonzalez often look on the rigorous program with skepticism at first, as they worry about their children’s overall well-being. But the IB program is aimed at producing well-rounded students, a definition that includes volunteer hours, sports, clubs, and classes like Flournoy’s Theory of Knowledge where students are encouraged to explore epistemology.

Success in college depends on more than just knowledge retention, and these kids know it. They prize their time-management skills and strive to be “reflective.”

In addition to all of this confidence and maturity, students of the IB programme at Burbank graduate with two diplomas. Their Texas diploma proves that they met state standards, and their IB diploma proves that they can meet standards the world over.

“We get a lot of feedback that IB is harder than their college classes,” Ramirez said.

This bodes well for college graduation, where reports show minority graduation rates as low as half and one-third that of white students.

And those white classmates aren’t setting the bar terribly high, either. Only about 50-60% of white students enrolled in four-year schools complete their degree in 4-6 years. Other reports show smaller gaps, but there’s work to be done no matter how it’s counted.

Burbank IB students go on to graduate college at rates of 70-80%.  Michael keeps up with them on Facebook, as many of them still look to her for tough love and motivation.

San Antonio leaders should be particularly interested in this incredible cache of future leaders, because many of these young students are deeply committed to their hometown, and intend to come home to play a meaningful role here.  They already have big ideas about the future of the city and how they can be part of its growth. Garza dreams of a public art program to enlist the creative energies of graffiti artists for the good of neighborhoods. Almeida-Trejo has a keen insight on her prospects of return.

“(San Antonio) is struggling to grow and keep (our) intellectual students,” she said. “I would love see the job field grow toward innovation.”

Let’s make a deal with this budding rocket scientist, San Antonio. Notre Dame made her an attractive offer, and more are sure to follow as she moves into graduate school. By the time she’s ready to field job offers and consider where she wants to invest her hard earned brain capital, let’s be the sweetest deal on the table.

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy and frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

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Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.