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."
Reiner, McSwain and Susan Sclafani, chief of staff for instructional services, sat in front of a brick wall. The parents might as well have talked to the wall.
"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.
Poisot, whose son is an IB senior, read aloud a four-page statement outlining the problems with Chemistry 2. For one, the textbook doesn't cover organic chemistry, which is on the exam. Plus, according to IB rules, students are to perform biweekly lab experiments, and lab notebooks comprise 25 percent of the final grade. Since August, the kids have had only one lab.
Poisot described how, on September 4, four fathers met with George August, coordinator of the IB program, and Case, the program's former coordinator. The school agreed that the new chemistry teacher needed help and hired Graham Scott, a postdoctoral chemistry researcher at Rice University, to tutor on Sundays.
Still, students weren't being prepared for the exam, Poisot said. According to Juli, the teacher sent the class to three lunch periods (instead of having class), rarely lectured and told the class she didn't know how to convert calories to kilocalories.
The solution McSwain offered in September was for complaining kids to switch into Millet's Chemistry 1 and 2 combined class. The students would be a little bored reviewing the Chem 1, but they would get the teacher they wanted and learn Chem 2.
The problem is that Millet was only teaching Chem 1. At the meeting, the valedictorian's mother handed McSwain her daughter's Chem 1 notebook from two years ago and her daughter's notebook from this year. The review for the exam was exactly the same; actually Millet was a little behind this year.
"Oh," McSwain said softly, pushing a pen into his palm. "It's designed to be a different course."
As the meeting progressed, the only problem that seemed clear to the administrators was that the parents in the room weren't happy. "We are receptive to the idea that there is a group of parents who are upset with the Chemistry 2 class," Reiner said. "We're sensitive to it."
The parents asked how the administrators planned to fix the problem. Repeatedly, they asked for an answer by December 17. They were told that wouldn't happen.
"When can we expect an answer?" William Moorhead asked five times -- but he didn't even get an answer to that question.
"We fully realize that you're not happy with the situation as it is," McSwain said. "But not everybody agrees with you."
"Do you?" parents asked.
"No," he said. He didn't see a problem.
The parents also demanded an effort to keep Case on the faculty.
"You are going to lose her," Louise Moorhead said. "You know that."
"No," McSwain said. "I don't."
"I'm not talking about CIA deniability," said Kirk Weaver, whose two sons graduated from the IBprogram.
"Have you asked her to stay?" Louise Moorhead asked.
"She's welcome to stay," McSwain said.
"Did she or did she not submit a resignation in writing to the authorities at HISD?" William Moorhead asked.
"She did," McSwain said.
"And you don't know she's leaving?" a parent asked, exasperated.
"Open your eyes, and see that you've done something wrong," another told McSwain.
Arms crossed over her chest, Juli sat in the back left corner wanting to scream. She was quiet because students had been asked to leave the meeting. Juli stayed, but she kept her mouth shut and quietly grew madder.
"All I want is to learn," Juli said later. "And it's frustrating to go to a school that says, 'No, not allowed.' "
The Chemistry 2 problem -- the problem McSwain didn't see -- was fixed a week later. On Thursday, December 17, students started signing up for the spring semester's Chem 2 class, taught by Millet.
"I'm supposed to be the miracle worker," Millet said. "We've already lost half a year.
"Why was I not good enough at the beginning of the year, but now I am? They knew what I could do. Why did it take so long?"
At the December 10 meeting, McSwain claimed Millet was teaching the classes he wanted to teach. But Millet says he always wanted to teach IB Chemistry 2.
McSwain refused to comment on the IB discord. HISD public-relations official Terry Abbott asked that questions be submitted in writing. But instead of answering the specific questions, McSwain replied with a bland, vague statement:
"We have in the past and will continue in the future to be committed to a strong academic tradition at Lamar High School. This includes a commitment to a strong International Baccalaureate program. The major initiatives for this program have been to support it with additional personnel, time, resources and training for teachers and to facilitate discussion among faculty members for needs of the future. Any information suggesting that there is an attempt to diminish or replace the program would be incorrect. We maintain an open environment. We listen carefully to the concerns of parents and seek to find reasonable solutions to issues through such dialogue. We value the service and input of all of our faculty members. Lamar High School is a great school, and it's going to continue to be a great school with an International Baccalaureate program that will be stronger than ever."
Rogene Gee Calvert has watched McSwain keep his word.
"I can't imagine McSwain would let this program go down the drain; he's got too much at stake," says Calvert, who has two children in the IB program and is the Lamar parent magnate advisory board president.
She knows some parents aren't happy, but she doesn't think they're in the majority, and she's sure their problems will get worked out.
"Whenever there's any change, there's pain," Calvert says.
Other parents say they don't want their kids to suffer while administrators work out the kinks. They count Millet's reassignment as a step in the right direction. But despite that victory, the parents aren't celebrating. The botched chemistry course was just a symptom of the greater problem, says Juli's mom, Karen Kucker.
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"The crumbling persists," says Louise Moorhead. "It's still there. The acute insult is being rectified, but why was it allowed to go on so long? We continue to have our crisis."
Case is still resigning. Lauren Jacobs and Stephanie Oddo, both 16-year-old junior IB diploma candidates, joined the program because they wanted to take her Theory of Knowledge philosophy class senior year. They're upset that they won't have the same IB experience their older friends did, Lauren says.
"I don't like this whole experiment that they're doing," Stephanie says. "The whole system is changing -- and we're the guinea pigs."
E-mail Wendy Grossman at email@example.com.