Equity initiative aims to include diverse mix of students

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Flathead High School is looking to cast a wider net over students of diverse backgrounds to enter the International Baccalaureate program.

And it’s making progress.

More students from low-income families, for example, are taking International Baccalaureate classes this year compared to last.

Flathead’s program is open to juniors and seniors. In the 2017-18 school year, 76 students taking IB courses were eligible for free and reduced meals, which is based on family income levels and federal poverty guidelines. In the 2018-19 school year, 100 students out of 407 taking IB classes were eligible for free or reduced meals.

Flathead High School IB Coordinator Kelli Higgins said there may be two reasons for the increase: the high school’s participation in an IB Excellence and Equity initiative and the addition of a Language and Literature class.

In the 2017-18 school year, Flathead joined other IB World Schools selected to participate in the equity initiative to reach more low-income and minority students in the U.S. This year, about 35 percent of Flathead’s total enrollment were eligible for free and reduced meals.

The equity initiative, which concludes this school year, was established due to an underrepresentation of low-income and minority students in International Baccalaureate Diploma Programmes, according to www.ibo.org. The initiative seeks to train and support staff in creating more inclusive programs by removing barriers that may exist for students by evaluating equity practices and policies.

At Flathead, 16 staff members including IB teachers, school counselors and Principal Michele Paine completed equity training in the areas of leadership, counseling, assessment and approaches to teaching and learning. The knowledge however, extends beyond the IB classroom into general education classes, according to Higgins and teacher Megan Koppes.

“Through my IB training and collaboration with other teachers, I have been able to apply good teaching practices to both my IB Language and Literature class and my sophomore Communications class, which has allowed me to apply strategies to get more students to a successful level of performance,” Koppes said.

Flathead offers 19 IB courses that are one to two years in duration. There are no prerequisites to enroll. The rigorous classes are a mix of seminar- and lecture-style instruction involving inquiry-based learning with a world vantage point.

“We brought IB in as an honors program and it still is that. It’s still excellent as an honors program, but it can be more than that,” Higgins said, with the right supports in place for students of different backgrounds.

Students may choose to take one class, while others go for the full diploma, which entails completing seven IB courses in English, foreign language, history, science, math, a theory of knowledge class and an elective. There also are arts, athletic and community-service components to round out the experience.

Higgins also talked about the high school’s previous efforts to attract a wider variety of students into the program by adding a second English option to roster a few years ago, which was Language and Literature. The appeal may be that it includes a mix of analyzing traditional literature and text in the form music lyrics, speeches, advertisements and other media that students encounter on a daily basis.

Koppes, who teaches Language and Literature, said there is a higher amount of interest in the program as a result.

“Overall, it has been valuable to offer another option and expand to better serve a variety of student interests and skill levels. As they complete the course, it’s been great to hear from the seniors who were the first round to test in IB Language and Literature in 2018; with a 99 percent pass rate, there were many success stories...” Koppes said.

Two students who took Language and Literature were seniors Kyah Gislason and Meaghan Fisher. Last year, they took two to three IB courses in other subjects.

“For me, it was for a challenge to take IB classes — and that’s why I took IB classes — but then I realized that I was only passionate about one of them, and that was English,” Fisher said.

As is the case with some students thinking about taking a course, Fisher knew she had strengths in English, yet wasn’t certain on whether her ability was at the International Baccalaureate level of rigor.

“English is my strong suit, but obviously, everyone has areas they need to work on. So, I didn’t think I should be at a higher level if I wasn’t perfect at everything — but then I realized that’s why you’re in it.

“To challenge yourself is to not be perfect, but to work on those areas,” ,” Fisher said.

One of the challenging Gislason recognized was writing essays. She said she approached Koppes and said, “It’s hard for me to write essays, and it’s not my favorite, and I really don’t like it.

“Now writing is my favorite thing to do and writing essays is my absolute favorite,” Gislason said, thanking Koppes for having faith in her.

But it doesn’t happen overnight.

“It’s definitely a process,” Gislason said. “You’ll definitely see a very big change.”

When looking across all subject areas in 2018, there were 110 students who opted to take one or more tests with a 91 percent pass rate.

“For me this success proves the point that many different students can be successful, given the right amount of support...” Higgins said.

She said one of the enlightening aspects of joining the equity initiative, has been receiving graded exams and seeing not only what students write, but also evaluators’ comments. Usually, the school only pays to receive graded exams in one or two subject areas on a per-teacher request basis because of the cost.

Taking IB exams is optional. The benefit to taking exams is that students may earn college credits, and in the past have started their first year at sophomore status, however, there is a $172 registration fee and a $119 fee per exam, which may be a deterrent to low-income students wishing to earn the full diploma. While the equity initiative didn’t address fees, according to Higgins, Flathead historically has offered payment plans and partial financial assistance to students who are eligible for free and reduced meals.

“The federal dollars to fund this student assistance have been cut completely, so our local Rotary Clubs have been funding this support for us for the last few years,” Higgins said.

Flathead will continue receiving equity-based services and support for the remainder of this school year. The cost to participate in the equity initiative was $3,000, a significantly reduced rate, according to Higgins, for the training, services, support and online tools.

“I’m hoping our community and staff will see, or already see, a student may not be a 4.0 [GPA] Stanford bound student, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a course in this program where they can thrive,” Higgins said.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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