Spanish teacher Kathryn Olivero looks over the work of a student in her International Baccalaureate class May 9.
LARGO – Up until recently, students entered into the International Baccalaureate program at Largo High School on faith alone.
Until the school met the qualifications and became an International Baccalaureate World School in April, its current freshman and sophomore classes had to trust that school officials would follow through on their promise to earn certification.
To add to the challenge, the high school didn’t have a great reputation two years ago. Getting students enrolled and excited about the potential IB program at Largo was a hard sell, said Adam Lane, assistant principal and IB coordinator.
“Largo High School at that time was actually a D-rated school. And we had the lowest graduation rate in the county,” he explained.
Until Largo decided to pursue accreditation, Pinellas students who wanted to work toward an IB diploma would be enrolled at one of two high schools. Both boasted a well-established IB program; Palm Harbor University High School was accredited in 1995, while St. Petersburg High School became the first high school in the state to offer the diploma as far back as 1983.
But then Largo High decided to offer a more centrally located program. Suddenly, any incoming freshmen zoned for Clearwater, Seminole, Pinellas Park, Dixie Hollins, or Largo high schools had to decide if they would risk enrolling in the IB program at Largo, one that wasn’t quite official yet.
“You can imagine these parents that were set that their kids (were) either going to go to Palm Harbor or St. Pete,” Lane said. “We just asked them to trust that we’re going to take care of it and get us there.”
Adding Largo gave more students the opportunity to attend the program. Both of the existing programs had waiting lists.
“There were a number of qualified students that could enter IB, but we didn’t have seats available,” Lane said. “So Largo entertained and pursued to be the third IB school in Pinellas County. The main purpose was the make sure that any student that meets the criteria to enter an IB program will not be denied.”
Mike Gautreau of Largo said he explored several options for his now-freshman daughter Taylor, before enrolling her in the IB program at Largo High. The more convenient commute did not allay Gautreau’s trepidation that the school might not meet its goals for certification.
“As a parent, one couldn’t help be a little bit nervous about seeing that happen,” he said. “I was part of that group of parents that were a little incredulous on the front end about if Pinellas County’s commitment to an IB program at Largo would be robust as the commitment at St. Pete High and at Palm Harbor U.”
Gautreau has since been convinced otherwise. Taylor’s first year in high school has been challenging and a “great experience” for her, he said. As an added bonus, the newness of the program means there are less IB students at Largo compared to the other schools in the district, which Gautreau said is an advantage.
“From that perspective, there are a lot more one-on-one opportunities for the teachers and students,” he said. “Taylor, when she does have a challenge at a given subject, has very good access to the teachers.”
The Largo High IB program currently has 55 sophomores and 52 freshmen. Its incoming class will be 58 students.
“We’re really happy with that. I think you’re going to see our numbers increase,” Lane said, explaining that the school can only accommodate 100 students per year.
Freshman Niko Pappas said his neighbor first recommended the program. While he was still in eighth grade, Niko was able to shadow him to get an idea of what the classes would be like.
Now that he’s enrolled, the advanced program is better than he expected.
“So far it’s great. All the classmates are really kind and all the teachers and staff care about my success,” he said.
In general, the program is designed to prepare students for “higher education and life in a global society,” according the IB website. In order to earn an IB diploma, students must make high enough scores on internationally standardized exams in a variety of subjects, given at the end of the program. The classes up to that point equip students with the well-rounded breadth of knowledge emphasized in the program’s philosophy.
Physics teacher Sam Chapman said the workload his students tackle is “a little heavy” because the class covers so much in so little time. But the experience is excellent preparation for classes beyond high school.
“They’ll be more ready for college than they would be if they just came out of a regular high school,” Chapman said. “College is just another day in the races compared to a big change for IB kids.”
Spanish IB teacher Kathryn Olivero said the students take an active role in their education. Recently, she and her 10th grade class discussed how they should cover the last two chapters within the remaining weeks of school.
“Because they understand the importance of their education, they understand the importance of learning the material. They recognize that they obviously need to know it … in order to get their IB diploma, but also so they can be successful in the global economy that we live in,” she said. “It’s not just me leading the class; it’s them working together with me.”
The students pick up the lessons quickly, enabling them to speak primarily in Spanish while in class, she added. Almost half of her students are bilingual already, speaking Vietnamese, Laotian, Bosnian, Mandarin Chinese and Gujarati.
“They just understand the importance of learning more than one language, which is really cool,” she said.
The students also are heavily involved in sports, clubs and groups within the high school. Lane said it was important to emphasize the integration of the IB classrooms within the rest of the school.
“I didn’t want them held in one specific building, where the traditional students at Largo looked at them as being a different group,” he said. “We have spread the IB program out across the entire campus. We have IB rooms in every wing.”
Lane said the IB program gives students an international perspective.
“What you learn in the classroom spreads out into the hallways and community of Largo and then around the world,” he said.
The road to certification certainly wasn’t easy. The three-year process involved an in-depth application, hiring and training specialized teachers, promotion of the program within community groups and at nearby middle schools and periodic evaluations from the nonprofit organization that oversees the program.
“They do a detailed checklist to make sure you’re prepared to be an IB authorized school,” Lane said. “We had the dedication and the determination.”
Since the IB program was added, Largo High has become an A-rated school and its graduation rate is now “very respectable,” Lane said. But he explained that the school already had a lot to help boost its score, including its ExCEL Magnet Program, Advanced Placement classes and a solid traditional program.
“IB’s going to help Largo maintain an A school (rating), but it really didn’t factor into what brought it to be an A school,” Lane said.
Nonetheless, the school’s dedication to the IB program has not proved fruitless.
“I’m very pleased with the commitment they’ve made, and I feel that this school will be just as sought after in the coming years as St. Pete High and at Palm Harbor U,” Gautreau said.
The Largo High School currently is reviewing applications for openings in its IB program. For more information, call the school at 588-3758 and ask for Brenda Chévere at ext. 2104 or Lane at ext. 2109.