An Alabama Pioneer: This Jefferson County School Offers a Diverse Mix of Students a “Most Challenging” Education  

For the ninth straight year, a Jefferson County school has earned a seat near the head of the class of the nation’s high schools, according to annual rankings by The Washington Post.

The Jefferson County International Baccalaureate School (JCIBS) ranked ninth in the newspaper’s annual list of “America’s Most Challenging High Schools”.  JCIBS is a “school within a school,” part of Shades Valley High School.

JCIBS was the only Alabama school ranked in the report’s top 20; one other Alabama high school, Montgomery’s Loveless Academic Magnet Program (LAMP,) ranked in the list’s top 100 schools.

The list is compiled annually by veteran Post education columnist Jay Matthews.  In calculating its rankings, the Post takes the total number of Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate and Cambridge tests given at a school annually and divides it by the number of May or June graduates. The calculation is called the Challenge Index.

What makes AP, IB and Cambridge exams important, Matthews said, is that they provide even average students with the chance “to experience the trauma of heavy college reading lists and long, analytical college examinations.”

The Jefferson County IBS offers 22 AP classes and 16 IB courses, ranging from microeconomics to music theory – and is an Alabama public school pioneer in using demanding courses to create a challenging academic  culture for students who want it.

“It’s very exciting for our school and so where real proud of what our students do and our teachers do,” Shades Valley principal Mary Beth Blankenship said.

“It is a great recognition,” said Dr. April Miller, coordinator of the JCIBS.  “It … helps us in terms of putting a bright spotlight on education in Alabama and in the district and here in Irondale of what we can do with public education. This is not a private school. This is not an elitist group of students or teachers. This is a cross section of our community.”

While students from across Jefferson County are eligible to apply for admission to JCIBS, the school is selective about who is accepted.  Admission is competitive and based on a variety of factors, including standardized test scores, IQ measures, grades, attendance and behavior at previous schools, teacher recommendations and an essay.

JCIBS’s average SAT score is 1,828, with an average ACT score of 29.0. Members of the Class of 2016 were awarded some $12.2 million in college scholarships.

According to the Post, the school is 56 percent white, 32 percent African-American and 12 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, Hispanic/Latino or other ethnicity.

Twenty percent of JCIBS students get free or reduced lunches, counter to the criticism of international baccalaureate schools as elitist academic islands. The school also has established pick-up points throughout Jefferson County to help overcome transportation challenges some students may face.

“We have students whose parents are unemployed. We have students whose parents are on disability. We have students who are just a real cross section from all over,” Miller said.

The Jefferson County International Baccalaureate School began in the 1992-93 academic year under the leadership of former Superintendent Herb Allen Sang. Sang was approached by executives from Alabama Power. The utility, as well as other local firms provided seed money for the school, the first IB school in Alabama, said district spokesperson Nez Calhoun.

As part of Shades Valley High, JCIBS students are able to participate in traditional high school activities, from athletics to the arts.  Students are also required to perform 150 service hours.

“Certainly IB and its presence at Shades Valley has a positive impact on our school as a whole,” Blankenship said. “They participate in all of the extracurricular activities at our school. It certainly makes for a diverse population of students. In the world that we have today, it gives them an international feel without really being international.”

JCIBS does not receive special funding, Blankenship said. “Funding is an issue, but not just for IB, but every public school.”

One challenge is that given the emphasis on student outcomes in public schools, other high schools may be reluctant to have their best and brightest go to JCIBS.

“It can be a challenge,” Miller said. “When I talk to middle schools, I don’t want to give the message or the impression that the school they’re zoned for is not going to give them a good and appropriate education. We try to show them there are things they can do at IB that they cannot do at their home school because of the IB curriculum and the opportunities that we afford them.”

She added, “It’s understandable, when we get students that are such good performers, sometimes there’s a little hesitance from some principals. But usually, when we’re able to talk to the teachers and everyone, it’s what’s in the best interest of the student.”

Other Jefferson County high schools offer advanced placement courses, but not as many as at JCIBS and not in a separate program defined by academic rigor.

The IB program will be expanded this fall into the middle school grades, as part of Pleasant Grove Middle School.

Along with consistently ranking near the top of the Post rankings, JCIBS was ranked as the top public high school in America by Newsweek in 2005.

But beyond rankings, there are individual success stories.

“What really makes my heart warm is when I’ve got students that had doubts about their ability to be successful and have stuck it out and have gotten a scholarship to their first choice (college). It’s always good when you have a student who is able to be successful, more successful than they had anticipated.”