Across the country, thousands of schools offer the rigorous International Baccalaureate program. Seattle is the only large district in the Pacific Northwest that makes parents or individual schools pay for it.

Share story

Despite results more promising than any effort in recent memory, a program credited with attracting students and boosting graduation rates at Rainier Beach High School could be facing its final year, raising questions about equity for struggling schools in Seattle.

Since 2011, a variety of grants have sustained the rigorous International Baccalaureate program at the high-poverty high school.  When that money runs out next school year, the funding to support IB — about $250,000 annually — could be left to parent fundraisers or  the school’s existing budget, competing with school counselors or wood shop or any other program.

This is exactly the problem faced by the 413 students who take IB classes at Seattle’s Chief Sealth High, which also offers the highly-touted, college-track program and no longer has grant money to cover its costs.

“It’s a terrible system,” said Kristin Arvidson, co-president of the PTSA there. “It’s sort of like the school district wants to brag about having IB, but they don’t want to deal with the details of cost and access. It feels like really high-quality window-dressing.”

Most Read Stories

Flash sale! Save 90% on digital access.

Officially, IB is not part of Seattle’s advanced learning department. It functions more like an add-on, though its courses can confer college credit, and about 1,000 students across the district take at least one IB class.

At Rainier Beach, which faced possible closure before importing the program, IB has been credited with boosting graduation rates by 10 percentage points in two years.

From the district’s perspective, there is no disconnect. The plan was always to start IB with grants. The school and local community could carry it from there, said Michael Tolley, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning.

This makes Seattle an anomaly among major urban districts.

“The vast majority of public high schools in the United States offering the IB Diploma Program get significant support from their school districts,” said Paul Campbell, head of regional development at the international organization. “Some districts pay for everything, some split the costs.”

Either way, stable funding is the essential requirement. “It’s a fairly modest investment, considering the returns,” Campbell said.

Few dispute the merits of IB’s approach, which demands that students write extensive essays, engage in community service and connect knowledge across disciplines – in addition to taking a rigorous battery of exams at year’s end.

Even at Ingraham High in northwest Seattle, which has wealthier parents and recently raised about $100,000 to support school programs, the school district’s laissez-faire strategy on IB is raising questions, said Carol Butterfield, co-president of Ingraham’s parent-teacher organization. She hopes to join with similar groups at Rainier Beach and Sealth to lobby for a more sustainable method of paying for the program.

David Quinn, who coordinates the IB program at Edmonds-Woodway High School in the Edmonds School District in Snohomish County, is astounded. Across the Pacific Northwest, Seattle is the only large district offering IB that does not fund its program at the district level, he said.

“I have to look at Seattle and say, what are you doing?” he said. “Are you really telling these schools, ‘you’re doing a remarkable job changing the lives of all these young people but we’re not going to pick up the check?’ ”