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Jonathan Wolfe's dad died just when high school was getting hard -- especially hard, since the sophomore was in Lamar's prestigious, challenging, for-smart-kids-only International Baccalaureate program.
Jonathan's dad was an intellectual, and Jonathan was becoming one. They debated whether black and white were really colors; they went to lectures at Rice and learned computers together. Fishing, roller skating, riding bikes, rambling on long drives, they would talk and talk, words moving mountains in Jonathan's mind.
"The IB program replaced that," says his mother, Kathleen Wolfe. "Jonathan lived and breathed it."
Or, as Jonathan himself wrote in a letter to the HISD board, "The program taught me I could overcome anything through knowledge. The IB program and its teachers have filled a void in my life with richness."
The Wolfes aren't alone in their passionate commitment to the program. The IB program attracts students (and parents) who value education highly -- and who expect the program to stick to the highest standards.
But that wasn't what Jonathan found when he recently dropped by Lamar to visit teachers and friends. He and other recent alums heard that things weren't going so well with the IB program. His former teachers talked about their frustration with changes in the program; one of his favorite teachers, program director Carol Case, had resigned, and others said they were leaving. Rumors were that the program might die, said Scott Chaiet, 18, another Lamar IB alum.
"Everything is changing," said Juli Kastner, a 16-year-old junior in the program. "And it's not good."
"You hear people talk about the military, and it makes them think there's something more and they're a member of something greater," Jonathan says. "IB's the same way. It gave me something to be proud of."
The IB program for high school juniors and seniors was founded in 1967 in Geneva, Switzerland, for the children of diplomats and international businessmen. People moving from country to country needed standardized course work so their kids wouldn't have to retake classes every time they crossed a border. The program quickly became popular among high-achieving students; classes are now offered in 720 schools in 94 countries.
Of the 13 IB programs in Texas, three are in HISD high schools: Bellaire, S.P. Waltrip and Mirabeau B. Lamar.
"Lamar's been a solid program," says Paul Campbell, associate director of IB North America, based in New York. It's also a big one -- the 18th largest of the 252 IB programs in the United States. In May, the school administered 436 exams to 245 students.
But this year, say parents, students and alumni, the program is in trouble: Case, Lamar's IB coordinator and founder of the program, resigned after 15 years, and other talented teachers are talking about leaving. Courses weren't up to speed; specifically, IB's second-year chemistry class wasn't meeting program standards.
"They're taking one of the premier educational programs in the district and they're trashing it," says William Moorhead, a theoretical physicist. His daughter Sarah graduated with an IB diploma last year, his daughter Anna is a senior IB student, and his son Andy is a pre-IB freshman.
Principal James McSwain says that his door is open to students, teachers and parents, and since the beginning of the school year, he and other administrators have met with concerned parents. But Moorhead says that when he and other parents asked what was going on -- why changes were being made -- they were told it was a secret.
"The IB program has operated far outside any authority structure resulting in numerous problems greater than those you presented to me, in my opinion," wrote Jeff Shadwick, trustee of the Board of Education, in a November letter to complaining parents. "I do not intend to share the details but ask that you accept that I have looked into it and agree with the district's concerns. Controls needed to be placed upon the program."
The parents asked what was out of control but weren't given an answer.
"It's a big mafia," says ophthalmologist Louise Moorhead.
About 25 parents of IB students met with HISD administrators on December 10 to recover what they see as a program in ruin.
"There's no reason for you to think we're out maliciously or capriciously to destroy the school,'' said Ray Reiner, superintendent for HISD's central district, at the start of the meeting. "That is not the case."
"Obviously, there are some problems," said Charlie Kopp, a Lamar alumnus whose son Chris is a senior IB diploma candidate and whose youngest son is a pre-IB freshman.
"Problems?" Reiner asked. "What problems are you referring to?"
The parents asked why qualified, experienced teachers were suddenly not teaching IB classes and were being replaced by teachers who don't know what they're doing.
Parents complained that current classes weren't meeting IB requirements; they worried aloud that Lamar's prestigious program was not meeting IB regulations and would lose its accreditation. And they were afraid their kids would flunk the IB exams.
Their strongest argument was the Chemistry 2 class. Richard Millet has taught honors chemistry at Lamar since 1975 and IB chemistry since the program's inception 15 years ago. But this year, the IB class was taken over by a younger, less experienced teacher who had never taught a full year of chemistry. Parents described an open house where the new teacher openly admitted she didn't know what she was doing; she said that when the kids ask questions, she usually doesn't know the answers.