The International Baccalaureate program is a two-year college prep curriculum offered at 23 high schools in Washington.

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Recognized for its rigor, high academic standards and multicultural approach to liberal arts and sciences, the International Baccalaureate (IB) program is a two-year college prep curriculum offered at 23 high schools in Washington, including Ingraham, Interlake, Chief Sealth, Edmonds-Woodway and Inglemoor in the Puget Sound area.

Proponents claim that IB participants are better prepared for university life and gain a competitive edge in the global economy; others counter it may unnecessarily push kids too far too soon.

What is IB?

In basic terms, IB is a program for juniors and seniors only (though some accelerated programs begin earlier). Students take classes in six core interdisciplinary subject areas and have the option of either taking select courses of interest, or pursuing a full IB Diploma, which may yield up to 30–40 college credits — a significant financial savings. But here’s the catch: The workload is far more demanding than standard course work, and there isn’t much free time for sports or other activities. To earn a full IB Diploma, one must write an extended essay, fulfill a community service requirement and complete assessments and exams. There is a cost associated with the program, too. At Ingraham, students pay $930 to cover exams and school fees.

How does it differ from AP?

“Students who have experienced both IB and [Advanced Placement] explained to me that IB focuses more on depth of analysis and thought, as opposed to covering a wider range of materials and aiming for synthesis like AP,” says Laura Drumheller, who teaches IB English at Inglemoor High School in Kenmore.

Students must be willing to grapple with more diverse and difficult texts. It’s also a tighter community. Students will find they take the same classes with the same group of students and form study groups outside of school. “It can feel like a school within a school, almost like private school,” she says.

Who is a good fit for IB?

“Students who are self-motivated and already have good organizational skills have the easiest road with this program,” says Guy Thomas, IB program coordinator at Ingraham High School in North Seattle. “A student doesn’t need to be gifted or top of his or her class, but the curriculum is text heavy, with lots of reading and writing, so students are best served if they are at grade level in those skills.”

And what about the workload — can you have a life and earn an IB Diploma at the same time?

“Classes are rigorous; it’s hard enough to fit in electives during the school day,” says Carol Butterfield, whose son attends Ingraham. “Then you have the extended essays due in the fall of senior year at the same time as college apps. This can be a perfect storm.”

Independent college counselor Emily Gallagher of Edge Academics in Lake Forest Park says it depends on the student.

“I’ve seen students who can handle a full load and also ski and do tae kwon do; whereas for some, one IB course can be too much,” says Gallagher.

Another aspect Gallagher encourages students to consider: Due to the rigor of IB, this may be the first time when hard work doesn’t necessarily correlate to a good grade.

“This is a hard conversation to have, and unfortunately, the stakes are higher because colleges do care about this,” Gallagher says.

Kaley and Annie Joss are both 10th-graders at Ingraham. Annie is currently taking pre-IB courses. Kaley, who is part of the cohort doing the accelerated IB program (IBX) says, “It’s true, some people had problems last year, but I feel that if you can manage your time, write academically and stay motivated, it’s not that strenuous.”

Ultimately, students, parents and teachers agree that the best part of IB is the love of the learning: “You have this wonderful, tolerant community of students from every background,” says Drumheller. “I am amazed by the work ethic of these kids from all parts of the globe working side by side, laughing, trying to understand one another. It is beautiful.”