- The Washington Times - Monday, February 19, 2001

SACRAMENTO, Calif. Bina Vasantharam sets the mood for her world history class at Mira Loma High School by popping a Gustav Mahler compact disc into a boom box.

Students are encouraged to share classical selections with each other to build an appreciation of the music. So as a symphony fills the air, Bina and her classmates take their seats. No one is absent, and no one is tardy.

Their desks form a semicircle, and their teacher sits among them so their attention is directed not only toward him but also toward the discussion he will moderate on fascism and Mussolini's rise to power.

It's a typical day in the Sacramento area's only International Baccalaureate program for high school students.

While many California classrooms focus on preparing for the state's standardized achievement test, this group happily works toward a much tougher and elite series of exams taken by top students around the world.

"I love it here," Bina, a 17-year-old senior, said of her International Baccalaureate classes. "I think it really prepares us for college with the amount of work, kind of work, discussions and the work ethic. People are open to hearing new ideas."

Mira Loma, in the San Juan Unified School District, has offered International Baccalaureate since 1989. IB, with headquarters in Switzerland, puts students through some of the most rigorous college-preparatory courses in the world. In fact, some IB graduates start college with enough credits to skip freshman year.

International Baccalaureate began 35 years ago for the children of diplomats a universal curriculum for mobile students. To earn an IB diploma today, students must pass a series of tests, write a 4,000-word research essay, complete the Theory of Knowledge course and spend time in community service and leadership activities.

Smokey Murphy, Mira Loma's IB coordinator and history teacher, said he works with about 500 "really bright, motivated kids who love being challenged and want to succeed."

They're students like 15-year-old Lucy Plumb-Reyes, who attended Brookfield School, a Land Park private school, and then decided her next move should be to Mira Loma.

"I wanted the academic challenge," Lucy said. "This is the only place where I could get it."

Mira Loma accepts IB students who live outside its attendance area as well as outside the San Juan district.

Students are admitted into Mira Loma's IB program based on their grades and standardized test scores. They can enroll in the full program or take select classes.

The worldwide IB diploma program is for juniors and seniors, but freshmen and sophomores can take classes under an extended IB curriculum designed for students in grades six through 10.

Freshmen and sophomores take college-prep classes in English, math, foreign languages, science, history and arts electives. Juniors and seniors typically take two years of advanced English, math, languages, science, American and global history, and the Theory of Knowledge class.

Course loads can be so full that students often take general-education requirements such as health during the summer, Mr. Murphy said.

The payoff is that about 95 percent of his students who elect to take the IB tests pass them, he said, and nearly all students who undertook the full program received IB diplomas last year.

Robin Mamlett, Stanford University's dean of admissions and financial aid, said IB graduates tend to exemplify the qualities her school seeks.

"We look for students who are intellectually eager; students who not only do well academically, but love course work," said Miss Mamlett.

For example, in Mira Loma's Theory of Knowledge class, students face the philosophical challenge of questioning the basis of knowledge and what it means to know something.

For a recent assignment, teacher Dave Mathews engaged students in a discussion on psychology after they had completed a personality test. The quiz placed students into personality categories based on their answers to questions such as whether they were more comfortable making judgments based on logic or values.

Senior Jennie Gibson wasn't surprised the quiz referred to her strong leadership skills and took part in a lively discussion on the scientific findings of the quiz.

"We're not fed things," Jennie said after class. "This class gives me a chance to question what I've learned."

• Distributed by Scripps Howard

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