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Schools to keep challenging diploma program

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Clayton County school officials have decided to expand the district's International Baccalaureate Diploma programs at North Clayton and Lovejoy high schools, instead of following a plan recommended last month by former Superintendent John Thompson to merge the programs.

North Clayton and Lovejoy high schools have had the diploma programs since the 2006-07 school year, but school system officials threatened to merge the separate programs earlier this month because of the district's loss of accreditation.

On March 14, Thompson was fired by the school board and Valya Lee was tapped to lead the district as interim superintendent until a permanent school chief is hired.

Since then, Lee has expressed a desire to improve student achievement in the school system, in part by better preparing students to do well in college. District officials recommended Monday the school board keep the programs at both high schools while working to find ways to allow more students to participate.

"It is the superintendent's recommendation that you support, and maintain, the International Baccalaureate Diploma programs at both North Clayton and Lovejoy high schools," Acting Chief Academic Officer for Secondary Education and Special Assistant to the Superintendent Sharon Brown said.

The International Baccalaureate program, which is overseen by the Geneva, Switzerland-based International Baccalaureate Organization, is designed to offer students a curriculum that includes Advanced Placement- and Honors-level courses, as well as a "Theory of Knowledge" course, and more than 150 hours of volunteer service activities.

During the freshman and sophomore years, future International Baccalaureate students are enrolled in the pre-International Baccalaureate program, where they take the majority of the Advanced Placement and Honors courses.

There are 107 International Baccalaureate students, including those in the pre-International Baccalaureate program, at Lovejoy High School, according to the school system's web site. There are another 60 students in the program at North Clayton High School, according to the web site.

A month ago, former Chief Academic Officer Kay Sledge told the school board that officials from the International Baccalaureate Organization were threatening to take away the programs at North Clayton and Lovejoy because the district lost its accreditation last fall. Sledge said the plan to merge the programs into one was created to avoid losing both of them.

The county's accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, is scheduled to send a review team to the district April 13-15 to evaluate the school system, and the school board, to see if enough improvement has been made to warrant re-accreditation.

School system officials told parents Tuesday at North Clayton that they expect to regain the district's accreditation by the end of May.

This week, Brown told board members the school system needs to offer refresher training for principals, coordinators and teachers in International Baccalaureate schools, and recruit more International Baccalaureate-trained teachers to improve the program.

Her report, which included the recommendation to keep both programs, was met with emotional displays of gratitude from two board members. One board member, Mary Baker, was moved to tears by the recommendation. Baker's daughter, Kaitlin, is a junior in Lovejoy's International Baccalaureate program.

"This has weighed heavily on my heart, and I want to say 'Thank You' for deciding to keep both programs," Baker said to Brown.

Board member Jessie Goree congratulated a group of International Baccalaureate students from North Clayton who began petitioning school system officials to keep both programs earlier this month. Goree said the board "has no problem financing a rigorous education."

"When they were told they were going to lose their program, they cornered some people after the meeting last week, and they have inundated us with e-mails," Goree said.

DeMarcus Bell, 16, a junior at North Clayton, was one of the students who petitioned district leaders to keep two, separate International Baccalaureate programs. Bell said he enrolled in the program at North Clayton because he liked the challenging course load it offered.

Bell said the students formed a committee, and delegated duties to students to make sure they sent a clear message to district officials that the pupils wanted to keep their program. Bell's mother, Michele Knighten, said the youth, who has a 4.2 grade-point average, planned to sign up for the joint-enrollment program at Clayton State University next year if the school system merged the International Baccalaureate programs.

On Tuesday, Bell said he had been at the meeting where Brown recommended the board keep both programs, and he was relieved to hear the recommendation.

"It's heartbreaking to know we put so much hard work into this, and then they were going to take it away from us," Bell said. "It's our futures, and we had to take it into our own hands."