Skip to content
ascd logo

April 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 7

Opening the Door for All Students

Opening the Door for All Students thumbprint
In the fall of 1954, even as protests and violence haunted schools across the country, Maryland's Baltimore City College High School integrated without any major conflicts. Founded in 1839, Baltimore City College High School, known as "City," already had a long history of inclusiveness, being the academic home of many of Baltimore's top Jewish students prior to the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and it was officially designated as the only college preparatory program in Baltimore City. It is the third-oldest continuously run public high school in the country and is a magnet school within the Baltimore City Public School system. A school full of tradition, City's mission is to provide a humanities-based college preparatory program to Baltimore students. While the Brown decision did not change the mission of the school, it did change its demographic make-up.
Between the 1960s and 1990s, City shifted from a predominately white, all-male school to a predominately African American, co-ed school. In an effort to continue the school's mission of high academic rigor and college preparation, the school became authorized to offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program in 1998. The IB Diploma Program, for students ages 16–19 (grades 11–12), offers a challenging curriculum centered on an inquiry-based approach to learning and rigorous assessment. Diploma Program assessments measure knowledge of concepts as well as skills such as analysis, construction of arguments, problem solving, and creativity.
Juniors and seniors at City were placed in either an IB or non-IB track. From 2000–2011, this process of separating students reflected the trend of homogeneous grouping and years of accepted school practices, but it also favored white students, who had significantly higher participation rates in the IB Diploma program. Students who were not given the chance to take IB courses, predominantly African American students, were excluded from potentially earning college credit through access and success on their IB exams.
Researcher Jeannie Oakes has determined that tracking depresses student achievement and leads to racial and socioeconomic stratification in schools. Thus, racial segregation was happening at City, a school which for more than a century prided itself on tolerance and diversity. Unintentionally, the administration at City had created a system of inequality that Brown had intended to eradicate.

Understanding the Divide

Although more than 90 percent of City's students were graduating on time, and the IB Diploma program produced successful college candidates, we had to ask ourselves if we were truly fulfilling our college-readiness mission for all students. City's current student demographic is 73 percent African American, 17 percent Caucasian, and 8 percent Hispanic. Yet in 2011, for example, 64 percent of students who earned the IB diploma were white. How were we breaking down racial divisions and promoting understanding across color lines when the students earning the IB diploma were disproportionately white?
As a leadership team, we wondered if we were setting appropriate goals of college success and retention for all students. Half of our graduates were first-generation college attendees and recipients of financial aid, yet National Clearinghouse data indicated that 20 percent of our African American graduates were dropping out after two years in college. We were disheartened by that data, but also noted that it reflected a national trend. In a survey of nearly 1,500 public high school graduates, researchers identified that 76 percent were neither challenged academically nor adequately prepared by their high school for college or the workplace. Furthermore, those students said that they would have worked harder if their school had demanded more of them.
We were not tapping into our students' potential to work hard and push themselves further. It was our obligation to our African American students, however, to give them the opportunities to challenge themselves and to prepare for the future.

Our Action Plan

Determined to correct what we realized was its own form of civil injustice, our administrative team devised a plan to address the gaps in the entry and success of students in rigorous courses. Grouping students limited their access to demanding course content, innovative practices in teaching, and diverse social experiences with peers. We decided to grow the IB program to become more inclusive, ensuring college readiness and success for all students. Our first step was to allocate necessary general funds to expand IB, including increased resources for exams and teacher training. Other action steps included:
  • Removing the barriers of tracks, placement test scores, and selection and recommendation practices.
  • Expanding International Baccalaureate to include grades 9 and 10 with the IB Middle Years Program.
  • Implementing a master schedule of IB Diploma Program pathways and required courses.
  • Increasing variety in IB Diploma Program course offerings.
  • Increasing teacher team collaborative planning time.
  • Applying mock IB Diploma-style assessments across content and grade levels.
  • Analyzing summative and end-of-year assessment data.
  • Establishing open communication to families about IB Diploma Program benefits for college.
  • Expanding on-site college advising services (including post-graduation monitoring).

Supports for Students

This switch required adjustments to the services and supports that City offered students. Students arrived at the school with a wide variety of strengths and weaknesses, and yet each would now be expected to engage in the rigorous work of meeting IB standards in all subjects and in all grades. For our detracking efforts to work, we needed to not only differentiate classroom instruction, but also to differentiate our supports.
First, we created a differentiated standards-based assessment and grading policy, which includes time for revision, feedback, and re-submission, in addition to workload balance. All students are given extended time for practice and additional feedback. Students and teachers speak a common language around standards, which focuses our conversations as a school on achievement and academic progress, rather than behavior. With clear IB targets, teachers can give feedback on the skill gaps. Students then reflect and take action to improve.
We also created the Center for Teaching and Learning, a hub of student support that includes a library and peer-tutoring centers focused on writing, math, science, and research. During the 2017–18 school year, peer tutors facilitated more than 5,000 sessions of one-on-one instruction, small-group instruction, or online feedback. More than 100 students visited the library daily to receive individualized instruction on challenging IB research projects like the Diploma Program Extended Essay and Middle Years Program Personal Project. The library collection continues to expand to support topics of interest for historical investigations and other IB-independent assignments.
Students' social-emotional health is also crucial to their academic success. Our social workers, counselors, and college advisors were trained in IB standards and practices and thus were better equipped to support our students. They acquired an intricate knowledge of what is being asked of students on a daily basis and helped them with time management, setting up routines, and staying organized. In addition, we created required bi-weekly small group advisory meetings with students and staff that included one-on-one goal setting and grade reviews at progress and report card windows that helped to stimulate academic conversations with students outside of the classroom.
Our educators' beliefs in students' abilities created the culture necessary to institute these types of supports. Our beliefs are grounded in IB's comprehensive framework of standards and practices for school and teacher leadership, which also prompts a regular review of our strengths and needs. This culture of continuous reflection not only focuses our work on the planning, teaching, and assessment of IB standards, but also directs us to find, test, and implement our own solutions to problems unique to our school. For example, we aligned assessments across content teams, developed courses with shared projects and subject-specific outcomes, and created district agendas to match the IB program's needs. Professional development has become teacher-led, interdisciplinary, collaborative, and focused on IB standards.

A Rigorous Road

We set out with a new vision to support students to challenge themselves and succeed. We earned recognition as an IB School—a school with high expectations for all students, a school that affirms the need to increase achievement outcomes for students of color.
In 2018, 70 percent of our African American students took IB Diploma courses and exams—a dramatic increase of 30 percent from 2011. The overall number of administered IB exams increased from 369 in 2011 to 1,257 in 2018, and students with passing scores in the exam increased from 146 in 2011 to 652 in 2017. Fifty percent of our African American students earned their IB Diploma in 2017, compared to 34 percent in 2012. While nationwide, IB Diploma candidate and course participation rates remained at 25 percent for low-income students, City's low-income participation rate in the IP Diploma Program was 57 percent. Candidacy for the full IB diploma increased from 31 students in 2013 to 112 students in 2018 (60 percent of whom were students of color).
Finally, as IB Diploma English became the default course pathway for all students in 2016, pass rates remained steady at 90 percent. Our faith in students' abilities were confirmed as data revealed that the school's highest achievers were not adversely impacted by an increase of African American and low-income students in the rigorous IB classes.

Realizing Their Potential

Communication about the lasting effects of the IB program has been crucial for both our students and their parents' understanding. High performance on the IB exams can earn college credit, and we make sure our students and families are aware of this benefit. In addition, we track and chart the potential savings for families in tuition costs—sometimes thousands of dollars.
Another great benefit of the rigorous courses is that they help our graduates adjust to college. When students arrive on campus their freshman year, they already know how to write a long research paper, craft an effective lab report, analyze scholarly journals and articles, and work through upper-level math problems. They know the right questions to ask their professors and how to seek support when needed. Our graduates are empowered to stay in college and finish strongly.
With exposure to IB Diploma courses, students also push themselves to apply to more selective "reach" schools, schools they might not have otherwise applied to for fear that they might not be strong enough academically to handle the rigor. One of our recent graduates, Derick Ebert, was initially resistant to the idea of taking on IB classes at City because he feared he wouldn't be able to handle the intense workload. But with the encouragement of his teachers and school supports, Derick took on IB coursework in English and history. The first person in his family to attend college, Derick is currently completing his master's degree in poetry this spring at Sarah Lawrence College. He credits the rigor of IB and the support system of the school for his success. "It is still paying off, even as a graduate student … I would like to believe I can credit having survived my time in IB to not only the amazing teachers, but to the students of color who made sure we held ourselves to excellence."
Derick's story is just one of many that illustrates how much difference it can make in a student's life when a school truly believes that all students can excel if given the opportunities and supports to do so.
Authors' note: Michele Flores, Seth Hedderick, Sarah Jeanblanc, and Rodney Joyner contributed to this article.
End Notes

1 Burris, C. C., Wiley, E. W., Weiner, K. G., & Murphy, J. (2008). Accountability, rigor, and detracking: Achievement effects of embracing a challenging curriculum as a universal good for all students. Teachers College Record, 110(3), 571–608.

2 Peter D. Hart Research Associates. (2005). Rising to the challenge: Are high school students prepared to work? Achieve. Retrieved from

Author bio to come.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
Navigating Shifts in College Admissions Is an Equity Matter
Tiffany Jones
1 month ago

Related Articles

From our issue
Product cover image 119041b.jpg
Separate and Still Unequal: Race in America's Schools
Go To Publication