San Antonio students will soon have expanded access to the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, a college preparatory curriculum recognized for its rigor and depth.

The San Antonio Independent School District has committed to pursuing comprehensive IB pipelines in the Jefferson High School and Burbank High School feeder patterns, and KIPP University Prep has been authorized to begin the 2016-17 school year as an IB World School.

Parents of students attending Woodlawn Academy, Longfellow MS, Harris MS, and Jefferson HS or elementary schools that feed into those schools are invited to an IB program information session on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 6-7 p.m., in the SAISD board room, at 406 Barrera St.

Access to the IB program will be a major step toward districtwide initiatives to improve competitive offerings at SAISD schools. For KIPP, the program was a natural fit, said Mark Larson, KIPP San Antonio founder and CEO.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in a 2008 study with McKinsey & Company, identified the IB program as one of the most effective ways to raise standards for students in underserved areas.

The McKinsey study concluded that the Diploma Program, designed for students between 16 to 19 years old, stands out from other public high school curricula in the U.S. because “it offers a rigorous, aligned, integrated instructional system that is both appropriate and valuable for students of average skill proficiency, and transformative for minority and low-income, i.e., ‘high-needs,’ students.”

The IB program prepares students for the challenges of college courses, and in many cases allows students to earn college credit through IB exams, and complete the Texas Distinguished Achievement Program, worth 24 credit hours at Texas public universities.

Burbank High School already offers an IB program for students and feeder schools, and Jefferson High School will file a formal application in April, seeking MYP for grades nine and 10, and the Diploma Programme for grades 11 and 12.

SAISD superintendent Pedro Martinez’s ambition to increase the college readiness across the district has energized principals seeking the IB program for their schools. It could also bring a much needed infusion of resources and support to the district’s sole existing IB program. 

Isabel Meza (right), like many Burbank IB students, is involved in several extracurricular activities. Photo by Scott Ball.
Isabel Meza (right), like many Burbank IB students, is involved in several extracurricular activities. Photo by Scott Ball.

“This is the absolute best curriculum in the world for students who have been historically denied access,” said Abigail Morton-Garland, co-school leader at KIPP University Prep.

The Diploma Programme has been available at Burbank High School since 1998, and has led to millions of dollars in scholarships to Ivy League and Tier One schools across the country. Remarkably, it has done so without the support of the Primary Years Programme (PYP) for grades between pre-K and five, and the Middle Years Programme (MYP) for grades six through 10. When Burbank students take “pre-IB” courses, they are preparing to dive headfirst into rigor like they’ve never seen.

The district also aims to add PYP and MYP to the Burbank feeder pattern, and increase the number of students interested in the Diploma Programme, or at least earn the IB certificate. The certificate omits the 4,000 word research paper requirement for a diploma. Harris Middle School is currently exploring the possibility of bringing in MYP.

Candace Michael worked for years before she founded Burbank’s IB program. For Michael, and current Burbank IB program director Mary Garcia, the program is a labor of love. The administrative requirements alone cause most schools to balk, and the financial commitment for schools and district is massive. Both women have shouldered mountains of paperwork, and have made ends meet with what the district has been willing to allot.

“I have put my heart and soul into this,” Garcia said.

Burbank IB students in the lab. Photo courtesy of SAISD.
Burbank IB students in the lab. Photo courtesy of SAISD.

An IB program, when properly executed, requires additional faculty and continual training for teachers. The $75,000 given to Burbank’s IB program does not allow for the necessary additional staff. For years they have “made do” with the staff they had, leaving some teachers with an enormous workload. They continue to do it, out of love for their students, but it’s clear that the program has been misunderstood by previous SAISD administrations.

SAISD’s new Senior Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction Lisa Riggs says that this is about to change. 

“IB is absolutely ranked high (among our priorities),” Riggs said. “We have to educate ourselves.” 

Riggs and SAISD superintendent Pedro Martinez have shown that they are ready to deliver real support to the campuses taking on the substantial challenge of hosting a successful IB program at any grade level. Principals at Jefferson High School and Woodlawn Academy say they have felt unbounded support from the superintendent and the board.

Calls for an IB program in the Jefferson High School feeder pattern came from community interest and SAISD school board District 7 trustee Ed Garza. The parents of Jefferson students shared that desire for increased rigor, community engagement and whole student development. They were concerned by how many students they were losing to charters. 

“This community started a huge movement to bring kids back into public school,” said Dorene Benavidez, Woodlawn Academy principal.

Benavidez had explored several internal charter solutions, but an IB program seemed to fit the bill.

Following school visits to McAllen and Corpus Christi, Texas, where the program has good results, Woodlawn Academy became the first school in the feeder pattern to embark on the application process. The Academy is now in the second year of what is usually a three-year process. The school teaches grades from pre-K to seven, and will expand to include grade eight next year, and the campus is aims to implement universal PYP and MYP for their students.

But universal enrollment shows that the program is not just for natural over-achievers. Catherine Crawford, Woodlawn Academy’s IB coordinator, believes that the IB program and teacher involvement in curriculum design make it beneficial for all students.

“We’re going to make sure that even some of our lower-performing students can be successful,” Crawford said.

The program requires that teachers build differentiation (different learning style approaches) into the curriculum. Woodlawn teachers already use differentiation when student needs arise but the IB program, from pre-K to diploma, celebrates the diverse interests and learning styles of students. 

“You’re really actually building up the child to feel like they can accomplish more,” Crawford said.

The IB learner profile, or the characteristics the program develops in students, are huge part of program’s appeal. PYP, MYP, and the Diploma Programme encourage students to be strivers, knowledgeable, thinkers, communicators, principled, open-minded, caring, risk-takers, balanced, and reflective.

All of these characteristics resonated with KIPP’s seven strengths.

“This is for us a very natural next step,” Larson said.

KIPP University Prep will be the first high school in the city with universal IB participation. Students in grades 11 and 12 will be included in the Diploma Programme. 

Morton-Garland witnessed the success of universal IB during her time with IDEA Public Schools in the Rio Grande Valley. When she arrived in 2005, campuses struggled with universal AP participation. By 2013, they saw 97% of students pass at least one IB exam, Morton-Garland said.

She also saw more students comfortably moving on to elite universities, where the time management and communication skills they learned in IB served them well. 

Rendering of KIPP San Antonio's future Cevallos campus. Courtesy image.
Rendering of KIPP San Antonio’s future Cevallos campus. Courtesy image. Click to enlarge.

KIPP University Prep aims to grow its enrollment to 800 in its new home at the KIPP Cevallos campus. A larger population will allow the program to diversify its offerings, one of IB’s strengths. Students can play to their strengths while they hone more difficult skills at the same time. 

Larson and Morton-Garland explicitly stated that the campus’s proximity to Burbank should not be read as a challenge. KIPP wants to attract students who have not gotten into other programs. 

“We want to elevate our own students,” Larson said.

*Top Image:Burbank IB students work on language projects. Photo courtesy of SAISD.

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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.