The International Baccalaureate Diploma Program is costly, demanding and — as some districts are finding — a way to rejuvenate struggling schools.

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Rarely have the stakes been so high at Seattle’s Rainier Beach High School:

Student enrollment continues to plummet. Test scores continue to droop. And whispers

of imminent closure abound.

But with 1,700 teenagers in Rainier Beach’s attendance zone, most of them now traveling out of the neighborhood to get their education, Seattle needs the beleaguered South End high school to succeed as never before — and in a big way.

The answer?

Parents at Rainier Beach believe it lies in a rigorous academic program created in Switzerland for the children of diplomats. And if they earn the necessary certification, Rainier Beach will become Seattle’s next International Baccalaureate World School, a place where college-bound students take a rigorous slate of advanced courses and test their performance against some of the most privileged young people on earth.

You could call it a Hail Mary pass for survival.

The IB program, as it is known, has a track record of saving schools previously written off, using teens’ natural impulse toward challenge and questioning to ignite an interest in education on their terms. This has worked in places like inner-city Chicago and in the poorer areas of California’s Central Valley, where teachers have seen many once-struggling students blossom as school leaders.

Closer to home, the IB has already effected similar turnarounds in Tacoma, and in Seattle, at Ingraham and Chief Sealth high schools.

But the high-minded, internationally focused program also forces confrontation with uncomfortable realities: IB’s college-prep focus tends to attract whiter, more affluent families; it requires academic skills that many students entering Rainier Beach do not possess. And at a high-poverty school like Beach, its price alone could be a deal-breaker — no matter how talented the students.

“When I saw that it cost over $700 to take the tests, I was like, ‘Whoa!’ ” said Kaeleabe Teferi, 17, a senior at Ingraham, which has been offering the IB for a decade. “I don’t qualify for free-and-reduced lunch, but it was still kind of a hard-sell with my parents.”

Kaeleabe is one of the few black students in line for an IB diploma at Ingraham this year, a fact he shrugs off and attributes to the dearth of black youth enrolled in honors classes, which act as a feeder system for the program.

But an image of elitism clings to the International Baccalaureate and remains a concern for parents at Rainier Beach, well aware that their students are — in numerous ways — not typical IB kids.

“It’s a predominantly white program — that’s what you see when you look at the literature, all white faces,” said Carlina Brown, president of Beach’s parent-teacher-student association.

“So I was like, ‘How am I going to present this to parents who are almost entirely black?’ “

Tailoring the program

Brown, who supports bringing the IB to Beach, has questions more pressing than race — specifically, how to tailor a program created for the privileged to low-income kids, some of whom enter high school with sixth-grade level skills?

“Our IB will have to be different,” she said. “Students come here with roadblocks that will necessitate a very creative approach — that’s the only way it will work.”

Parents across the country have wrestled with the same quandary: How to make the IB accessible to all students without diluting its academic standards? But David Ogden, a former IB staffer who now coordinates advanced programs within Seattle schools, insists that the curriculum is flexible enough to accommodate every kind of kid.

“There are only 3,372 different ways to do an IB program,” he said, referring to the number of schools worldwide teaching its particular inquiry-based style. “Every school has their own take.”

Much of his optimism stems from the fact that not every student taking an IB course necessarily pursues the program’s demanding diploma, which requires passing six lengthy exams, plus a 20-page research paper and community-service project. Taking even a few IB courses can change students’ approach to schoolwork overall, Ogden believes.

Stockton, Calif., offers a case in point.

In the early 1990s, educators there brought the IB to that city’s Franklin High School, and initially, it foundered.

“We have huge foreclosure rates, lots of homeless kids and gang violence,” said Elizabeth James, who teaches at Franklin. “But IB is growing exponentially now — with wild success.”

Teachers found that linking class work to students’ daily lives boosted the program’s popularity. So to spark interest in English and history, for example, they examined the novel “1984” and lessons on the Cold War through a single question: “Are you free?”

“It was all kinds of easy to get kids to learn then,” said James. “We had 15-year-olds hungry to answer that for themselves, and that kind of hunger doesn’t go away.”

In a decade, the number of diploma candidates at Franklin has soared from 38 to 700.

In Stockton, as at Henry Foss High School in Tacoma, the majority of students taking IB classes are low-income, and some mix IB classes into their regular curriculum, rather than pursuing the full diploma. But even that can have a transformative effect.

“IB students tend to take school-leadership roles — that’s just the kind of kids they are,” said Cindy Lenihan, who coordinates the program at Foss. “They’re trained to look at things from multiple perspectives, and that changes the culture of the whole building.”

This is exactly the scenario teachers are hoping for at Rainier Beach.

“We need to make this very explicit: that kid who’s a behavior problem? Who’s getting Ds? This is a program for him, if he chooses,” said Colin Pierce, the youthful new IB coordinator there.

An unabashed believer in the program, Pierce intends that every student at Rainier Beach will take at least one advanced class before graduating.

Gaining certification

Getting a school certified to offer the IB takes three years of teacher training, independent evaluation and hundreds of pages of self-study — all of which come at considerable cost.

Seattle has earmarked $250,000 to get Rainier Beach up-and-running in time for a September 2013 start date, and Najee Clark, 14, may be among the first to benefit.

“I like to challenge myself,” said Najee, a freshman who fantasizes about the upper-level math and science courses he’ll be able to take en route to his dreamed-of career in nano-robotics. “I’m hoping to pioneer a new technology.”

Yet in a school where 78 percent of students are low-income, Seattle’s good-faith efforts may not be enough. In February, Congress slashed funds covering poor kids for the $745 cost of taking the IB’s diploma exams, sending educators into a near panic.

“Nationally, we will see the impact of this, of how we are really denying opportunities to low-income students,” said Bob Vaughan, who manages Seattle’s advanced learning programs. “It’s very distressing, absolutely distressing.”

Calling it “criminal” to deny opportunity to hardworking kids, state Rep. Ross Hunter (D-Bellevue) came up with a budgetary reprieve for next year. But without a more permanent solution, districts around the state — and the nation — could eventually be forced to plug the gap themselves. Or allow IB diplomas to slip back into a province of the privileged.

Smaller classes

Najee Clark’s mother chose Rainier Beach primarily for its smaller classes and — with fewer than 400 students — its close-knit, family atmosphere. But many others in South Seattle feel less sanguine about the school known more for producing sports stars than scientists.

Melbourne Jagodinik, 17, who lives in South Seattle but commutes an hour north for the IB program at Ingraham, suggested that the perception of violence in the area might deter students from enrolling at Beach, no matter how desirable its new curriculum.

Still, she was hopeful.

“I know Ingraham was very much like Beach at one time,” Jagodinik said. “There were rumors of gang violence — well, there was gang violence — but look at us now. We’re sitting around discussing ‘King Lear’ like he’s an old friend.”

This kind of enthusiasm is typical of IB students, and even parents grown weary of fads express guarded optimism about bringing the program to Beach. They have, however, been slower to sign up their children.

“Nobody wants their kids to be the first to try it,” said Mimi Hunter, a 1999 alumna who was among only two residents to show up at a meeting aimed at generating community buzz.

Similar criticism

Seattle educators weathered similar skepticism when bringing the IB to Ingraham and, more recently, to Chief Sealth High School, where a quarter of the staff voted against importing it.

In both cases, however, the program has reaped significant rewards.

Four years after it took root at Ingraham, enrollment was up by 24 percent.

And now, three years since Sealth graduated its first round of IB scholars, the formerly-languishing West Seattle high school has one of the longest waiting lists in the district.

The IB’s presence has, however, corresponded to demographic changes in both buildings. At Sealth, the rate of white students has grown from 26 to 32 percent since the school began offering the IB, while the black population has slowly ebbed. At Ingraham, patterns are similar.

Teachers — wary of splitting students into haves and have-nots — urge all kids to take at least one advanced course, even those with no intention of pursuing an IB diploma.

At Chief Sealth, young people, of all colors, were recently discussing Stalin, Hitler and propaganda in an IB history class. They tossed around terms like privatization and social engineering while teacher Laura Robb suggested a paper comparing Stalin-era gulags to the U.S. corrections system.

“Six years ago, it was socially unacceptable for students to be chatting about schoolwork,” Robb said later. “Now you see kids in the library after school.”

“It’s seeping out of the classrooms.”

Convincing students who have little interest in higher education to wrestle with college-level coursework is often a struggle, she acknowledged. But after the turnaround at Sealth, Robb is a believer.

Not long ago, she ran into a former pupil now employed at Target.

The young man, who never aimed to be an academic star, had taken IB math and indeed failed the exam. But he was thrilled to tell Robb that the higher-level coursework had vaulted him far ahead of others in his community college class.

“I consider that a success,” she said.

Freelance writer Claudia Rowe can be reached at