Uncertain future? IB program changing lives and communities for the better

By Trevor Hutchinson

The program is known for its rigorous academics and internationally standardized tests but also for developing the whole student. Photo: Erin Burrell.

Cost-cutting by the province is pushing Trillium Lakelands District School Board (TLDSB) to consider dropping one of the very programs that gives the Lindsay area an edge — the coveted International Baccalaureate (IB) program.

Because the board receives no provincial funding to administer the IB program (which runs at I.E. Weldon Secondary School), it was the focus of a recent review by the board. That review has some students and parents concerned for the very future of the popular program, even though it will reexamined again in 2020-21.

Erin Matthew, IB coordinator at I.E. Weldon Secondary, speaks with students. Photo: Erin Burrell.

An internationally recognized program

The IB is a standardized program run by a non-profit association in Switzerland. It’s offered in 5,263 schools in 158 countries. Weldon’s IB program — one of only 186 diploma granting IB schools in Canada, or 5.5 per cent of schools — has run since 2003. Students can enroll in the full course load or choose to take individual IB credits.

Erin Matthew, IB coordinator at Weldon, has been involved with the program for 17 years and has been coordinator for four and half years. The program is known for its rigorous academics and internationally standardized tests, but is more than just a challenging academic option for students, according to Matthew.

“The IB is a pedagogy, a method and practice of teaching. It’s not just rigorous academics. The focus is on developing the whole student. It’s everything that an educator wants to teach,” she says.

Students interested in the IB pursue a stream of preparatory courses in Grades 9 and 10 known as power pack, and then move on to a partial or full IB stream in Grades 11 and 12. The program has been growing in popularity over the years.

“Next year we will have the largest Grade 11 class we have ever had,” Matthew says.

So why would the school board review such a prestigious and popular program and not commit to it beyond the 2020-21 school year? As it often is, the answer is money and resources.

Death by a thousand cuts

At a January 28 regular meeting of the TLDSB, Katherine MacIver, superintendent of learning at the board, presented a report on the IB program. MacIver described the review as a way to “increase efficiencies, remain within budget allocations and provide equitable education.”

In an interview with the Advocate, MacIver described the review as something the board is doing with all of its program offerings as a result of funding changes from the province.

“The biggest factor is a revised funding formula that we received last spring. Student-teacher ratios — depending on where that issue ends up — affects our ability and determines our available resources,” MacIver says.

“We conducted a review with the goal of moving towards a user-pay system,” she adds.

The IB does come with some costs that must be remitted to the IB organization. Figures presented at the January board meeting showed a total cost to the board of about $279,000 for the 2018-19 school year, or just over $2,188.63 for each of the 109 students in the IB program. Of that figure over 85 per cent is a staffing cost to offset smaller class sizes. The non-staff IB costs to the board were only $377 per student.

The plan for 2020-21 is to increase student tuition fees to $2,200 for the two-year program (an increase of up to 46 per cent for some students) and to bring the student-teacher ratio more in line with other university-level courses.

MacIver explains that educational funding as a whole is too uncertain to guarantee the program beyond 2020-21. “We are not in a position to make long-term promises because too many things can change, most notably changes to provincial funding.”

Enabling Success

Sidney Worden is a Grade 11 student at Weldon taking a partial IB program. She describes being saddened by the news that the IB program’s future is in doubt past the 2020-21 school year.

“There are tons of benefits to the IB program. IB offers a different angle to learning and prompts students to learn and think at a higher level, preparing them for post-secondary. Another thing I’ve personally noticed is that IB prompts students from all backgrounds, social groups and interests to work together,” she says.

Like many students, she was concerned about the school board’s plans. “I was really disappointed … The IB students are some of the hardest-working, most well-rounded students I know. Many of the other kids in the program feel the same as I do. We genuinely learn so much in the IB classes and it is such a great experience and we’re sad that some kids might not get to have the same wild experience that we’ve had,” she says.

Former IB student Haleigh Wallace graduated in 2017 and is now in her third year at McMaster University. She describes the standardized exams and rigorous academics of the IB program as being incredibly helpful for her as she made the adjustment to post-secondary.

“By the time I started at university, I was already familiar with a lot of the material in first year. Being very well-prepared academically made for an easier transition. Knowing I had the academics down, I could concentrate on the other aspects of the transition like living away from home for the first time,” she says.

Encouraging Social Mobility

The board has also cited “equitable education” as part of the rationale for the review. “TLDSB wants to ensure, where possible, all students have equal access to programs,” Sinead Fegan, communications officer for the TLDSB told the Advocate.

MacIver adds, “equity doesn’t mean equal. But we want to make sure, from a socio-economic perspective, that all students have opportunities.”

There is a perception among some members of our community that the IB program is one that primarily caters to students from higher socio-economic backgrounds. While it is true that kids from such backgrounds statistically take more advantage of such opportunities, Matthew finds the program to be truly equitable.

“The IB program offers local students an opportunity to thrive. It offers equal access to Lindsay and area kids to something that is afforded casually to kids from higher socio-economic means,” she says.

The program enables local kids to do the exact same program (for $2,200 over two years at the new rates) as the one offered at Upper Canada College, for example, at around $50,000 a year. And because some universities will actually give transfer credits for IB work, the program can end up saving a student perhaps $20,000 because some universities allow them to enter second year right from high school.

Matthew says the IB program can help local students thrive. Photo: Erin Burrell.

The fees for the IB program have historically not been a barrier. Weldon funds, from its own school budget, partial or full scholarships to any student who may need it. Matthew reports that in any given year, eight to 15 students take advantage of this. It is unclear how the increased fees for 2020-21 will affect this subsidy although Matthew is confident that the school will find a way to keep offering help to any student who needs it.

Viewed from this perspective, the IB program can be seen as a mechanism for social mobility. It allows kids the opportunity — through their own hard work — to pull themselves out of poverty so they might succeed at the highest levels in post- secondary education and the careers that follow.

A program that affects us all

The IB program doesn’t just offer benefits to students; it benefits us all, often in ways that never get discussed at the board and community level. The Globe and Mail looked at areas in Toronto that have an IB school: “Widely perceived as a private school perk, academically elite IB programs are increasingly on offer through the public system, and houses in neighbourhoods with IB schools already in place are reaping the benefits.” In other words the IB program increases property values in Lindsay and the surrounding area.

There is also anecdotal evidence that some business-owners, professionals and doctors have chosen Lindsay because of the existence of the IB program. And of course there is the benefit that is derived from the IB students who return to the area after their post-secondary endeavours. Research shows that IB students have significantly higher rates of university achievement and graduation rates.

Creating informed and involved citizens

However not every benefit of the IB program can or should be monetized. As Sidney Worden rightly states, “my education is not a business and therefore, in my opinion, should not be treated as a business by the board.”

With its focus on internationalism, critical thinking and collaboration, the IB is a source of future leaders for our community.

The IB program is much more than academics, though. It aims to, in the words of the international mission statement “develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.”  The focus on creating a caring student should not be undervalued. The program requires 150 community service hours (compared to the 40 required by high school students in traditional programs.) Students have to attain these hours in the areas of creativity, action and service.

“The community service hours were a great way to try new things. My final project was a fundraiser for A Place Called Home (this area’s homeless shelter). This helped me to get up and speak in front of strangers. It helped me break out of my shell,” Wallace says.

She is in a Facebook group with 50 former IB students who are all concerned for the future of the program.

“The IB program creates critical thinkers who can respectfully listen and debate and be well-rounded and open-minded,” she says.

What will the future hold for the program?

Matthew points out that research overwhelmingly supports the idea that smaller classes lead to better learning outcomes. However, she says the program will successfully adjust to the new class-size targets (which the program has never had to do in the past.) “I believe that we will continue to deliver the high-quality program that we always have,” she says.

The TLDSB’s MacIver seems to be cautiously optimistic about the program’s future. “I think we have a great plan to keep it viable. We will review this in the spring and investigate. We will have to determine if we can continue to offer this program and determine if we can offer it elsewhere,” she says.

Given the opportunities and benefits that the IB program provides to the students and families of all backgrounds, and with the documented spinoff benefits it has for the community as a whole, advocates for the program feel its preservation should be all but assured. Many in our community are hoping a government — one that hasn’t exactly been getting straight As on the education file — will see the value of a program that changes lives and communities for the better.

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