What you need to know about the International Baccalaureate program

Find out if this challenging program is right for your child

When mom of three Judy Matheson heard that a new enriched educational program was being offered at her eldest daughter’s high school in Eastern Passage, NS, she was thrilled.

Renowned worldwide for its high school diploma program (offered in grades 11 and 12), the International Baccalaureate (IB) is growing in popularity across Canada. “It’s a well-rounded liberal arts program that encourages students to strive for excellence and to help others through community service — two wonderful goals,” says Anne Dale, IB coordinator at Weston Collegiate in Toronto. To earn an IB diploma, students must devote their final two years of high school to the program, which requires English and another language, math, science, social studies and art, plus a course on theory of knowledge, a 4,000-word essay and at least 50 hours of community service. Three of the six subjects chosen are studied at a higher level than standard high school courses  — 240 teaching hours as opposed to 150. That can mean more than four hours of homework a night.

Two lesser-known IB programs geared to younger pupils are also starting to gain ground: the primary years program, which runs from junior kindergarten to grade five, and the middle years program, for students in grades six to 10. The curriculum for all three age groups focuses on the development of critical-thinking skills.

IB started in 1968 at an international school in Switzerland for the children of diplomats, military personnel and business executives based outside their home countries. Currently, there are 3,307 schools around the world, more than 300 of them in Canada, that offer one or more of the three IB programs. Students can also opt to take a selection of IB certificate courses in their areas of strength or interest, rather than the entire diploma program.
Because it’s so rigorous, IB is not for everyone, says Charlotte Brooks, a school counsellor and IB coordinator at Park View Education Centre in Bridgewater, NS. Only nine students graduated with a full IB diploma from Park View last year out of a school population of about 850. “Students who are likely to succeed are self-starters, hard-working, organized, curious,” says Brooks.

Matheson’s daughter Katie was one of the first graduates of the IB diploma program at Cole Harbour District High. “Some parents would say to me that the kids in the IB program weren’t living a normal high school life. But Katie still had time for friends, a part-time job and she was an air cadet,” says Matheson. “Still, there were times she questioned why she was doing it.” Matheson’s 16-year-old daughter, Sarah, a talented musician, opted out after completing the pre-IB grade 10 program, choosing to focus on her piano instead.

“We lose about 30 percent going into grade 11 for various reasons,” says Dale. “They find it too hard, they don’t want to do the homework or they need more time to pursue other interests.”

The IB program is free in some provinces, including Nova Scotia where the Department of Education picks up the tab. Fees for the diploma program include a $173 student registration fee, plus a $120 subject fee. And many universities have additional scholarships for IB grads.

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