Brainiacs

International Baccalaureate students learn that the best revenge for a nerd is a great education -- in elitism

It's just after school on a Tuesday, and Jacob, Chris, Sam and Mike are doing what they've done for the past 12 years: lying around in Jacob Verburg's living room playing video games and drinking Coke.

"It's been this way every day pretty much since kindergarten," says Verburg, a 17-year-old senior at North High School who's lived in the same two-level house on the foothills of what is now Piestewa Peak since he was 4.

"Our basic day is, like, people come over here after school and we pretty much just hang out, play games and eat snacks until about 6 o'clock. Then at 6, my parents get home, all the guys leave. And then basically we work on our homework from 6 p.m. to whenever we finish."

Mark Poutenis
The future's so bright: North High students and teachers smile through the stress.
The future's so bright: North High students and teachers smile through the stress.
Childhood pals (from left) Sam Campbell, Mike Sotelo, Jacob Verburg and Chris Peterson, with Jay Watford and Joseph Geribn,  chill out before tackling the books.
Jackie Mercandetti
Childhood pals (from left) Sam Campbell, Mike Sotelo, Jacob Verburg and Chris Peterson, with Jay Watford and Joseph Geribn, chill out before tackling the books.

That can be a long night when you're factoring cubed x-intercepts and penning extended essays on Lukacs' "decay of untruth" as it relates to your own experience. Verburg and his buddies Chris Peterson, Sam Campbell and Mike Sotelo are all enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program at North High, a rigorous, college-prep curriculum that requires an average of three to four hours of homework per night and plenty of time studying for the advanced-level exams that are thrown at them each week. Yuck.

Nevertheless, Jacob and his buds still find time for a rousing game of Mario Kart Double Dash every afternoon. "Wanna go again, ladies?" Verburg taunts, passing out the other three controllers as Campbell scoots up to the GameCube and restarts it, bringing the familiar faces of Mario, Luigi, Donkey Kong and Peach onto the large-screen projection TV. "I got the wireless," Mike demands, reaching for one of the newer controllers. "I got the couch!" yells Sam.

It's a pretty idealized boys' environment, and pretty insulated. While Verburg insists the weekends get wilder, with crowds swelling to between 12 and 15 and a few of the Xavier girls they've known since grade school often stopping by, there's little evidence to suggest the boys get heavy into keggers or other typical teenage rites of passage. On this day, the primary concern seems to be who's watching the oven in the kitchen to make sure the lemon squares Peterson's preparing don't burn.

A visitor asks the four childhood friends what they'll all do after graduation, and for the first time all day Verburg looks genuinely clueless.

One of their other pals just got into Yale, but most of the offers so far have been from in-state schools. It's still early in the college application season, but these guys are anxious. "You think you did all this to get into a great college -- and then, I find out I'm just going to ASU!" says Sam Campbell, shyly dodging eye contact through long bangs of scruffy hair.

But the guys just seem happy they've survived high school with their friendships intact. While everyone else around them changed hair styles, personalities, alliances and directions, somehow these guys managed to cruise through the whole thing without even changing which Nintendo character they like to play as.

Of course, they haven't emerged from high school with many new friends, either. At North, the 400 IB students who take special advanced courses in the midst of the 2,000 regular -- or "mainstream" -- students are sometimes called the "IB Better Than You" kids.

One day before the holidays during lunch period, Sam and Mike are found cramming for a calculus exam at their usual table west of the North lunch court and speaking in "IB Zone," mainstreamers' code for language they feel is spoken deliberately over their heads. When asked if they're friends with any of the non-IB kids around them, Campbell admits sheepishly that he's kind of afraid to talk to them.

"We're friends with whoever we see every day," he says simply, only partially looking up from the huge Calculus 2 book open in front of him on the lunch table. "It just happens that most of our classes are with other IB kids."

"A lot of the other groups are kind of divided up ethnically," says Sotelo, who classifies himself as Chicano. "But I don't exactly go out and hang with the other Hispanics. I try to, seriously, but they look at me as different. They go, Oo, you think you're better than us.'"

To which Sotelo adds, ironically, "Jackasses."


Cathy Flesner, coordinator of the International Baccalaureate Program at North Canyon High, another school in far north Phoenix that, with North, is among only five in the Valley that offer it, steps up to the podium in the school's sprawling auditorium and welcomes the several hundred families who've come out on this Wednesday night in October to learn more about the impressive-sounding course offering.

"If you've been invited here tonight," she tells the crowd of unusually attentive eighth-grade students from various surrounding middle schools and their beaming parents, "it's either because your student has been consistently scoring at or above an A average on their report card or because they've been personally recommended by their current teachers."

Some of the parents have already heard about the program. The International Baccalaureate, or IB, is a special accelerated curriculum developed in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1968 that's suddenly becoming the hot thing in American education -- particularly since it was singled out in a Newsweek cover story last June as the one common program offered at all of the schools it trumpeted as "America's Best High Schools."

"If you were to go to a private prep school, the level of instruction IB offers would be equivalent to a 15- to 20-thousand-dollar-a-year education," says Flesner.

"I hear it's even better than Brophy," whispers one mother of a bright 13-year-old boy. "Students there don't even take calculus!"

Better yet, IB is offered -- in public schools, 90 percent of the time -- as an "alternative curriculum," ensuring the kids are getting that snooty prep school education amidst a diverse population of regular, multicultural teens. In the 15-minute video Flesner plays for the crowd, the program's developer, Roger Peel, rhapsodizes about the "world community" vibe the program (offered internationally in 112 countries) instills in its diverse global student body. "The end result, we hope, is a more compassionate population," Peel says, over utopian shots of white, black, Hispanic, Asian and Indian kids all learning together. "Ideally, at the end of the IB experience, students should know themselves better than when they started, while acknowledging that others can be right in being different."

But most of the brainy 13- and 14-year-olds here tonight are not all that interested in being part of a large, compassionate community. The second question posed in the Q&A session -- after "Do we have to take P.E.?," apparently a prime concern among the bookish, outdoor-shunning middle schoolers, judging from the number of hands that go down after it's asked -- is this one, posed by a young boy in a geeky "Got Root?" tee shirt: "How many of our classes do we have to take with the other students in the school?"

Many of the kids smile and confer among one another when Flesner answers that the classes they take during their first two years will include a mixture of IB, honors and AP (or Advanced Placement) students, but that all of their studies as juniors and seniors will take place in classrooms made up almost exclusively of fellow IB brainiacs.

"Yes!" one student can be heard cheering to his friend on the way out of the auditorium after the closing Q&A session. "We won't have to be in with all those idiots!"

"It's bad enough we'll have to ride with them on the bus," his friend says. "We should have asked if we get our own bus -- like Special Ed, but for smart kids."


It's a typical late Monday morning around the lunch court at North High in central Phoenix. Outside the cafeteria, standing around a picnic table with one foot each propped up on the metal bench, six black boys are comparing the airbrushed graffiti work on their Timberlands and AF1s. "I told y'all chrome is the tightest," boasts a tall, lanky senior wearing white Jordans with his nickname stenciled in two-toned rounded letters that appear to shimmer in the sunlight.

Over in the center of the courtyard, buying slices from the student pizza bar, four Latina girls are talking lip liners and foundation sticks and which one of their rivals was the latest to get flamed as a "lesbo-slut" on the national student trash-talk site, schoolscum.com. "That dress looks good," one of them says, pointing to a half-black, half-Italian girl making her way through the courtyard. "But not on her!" the others sing in unison.

It's a classically superficial, popularity-based version of high school that Violeta Ramos, for one, can't stand. Ramos is a senior in North's IB program.

"I always had this perception of high school, especially when I was in seventh and eighth grade, of a kind of TV high school,' where everybody was just into partying," says Ramos, daughter of a Latin immigrant family. "I really dreaded that."

"You can see how segregated it is out here," adds Kate Glantz, another IB senior, navigating her way through the cliques of teenage groups, most of which seem to be separated by ethnicity, and even shades of ethnicity. In a school that's 65 percent Hispanic, 8 percent black and only 18 percent white, the tables in the North High lunch court, particularly the girls' tables, would look from the air like a neat Mary Kay foundations box separated into even-toned circles of color ranging from Frosted Rose to Downtown Brown.

But Glantz, in a preppie navy Student Government sweat shirt under long, wavy Felicity hair, and Ramos, wearing a favorite Che Guevara tee shirt, meet at their own table, far to the west of almost all the others. At first glance, the senior IB table appears to be the most welcoming and diverse gathering place in the yard. On this day, an Asian girl in smallish, rectangular glasses discusses history with Ramos, while a white boy in a scruffy punk hair style quizzes a darker-skinned boy in dreadlocks on quadratic factoring.

But a quick polling of surrounding tables reveals the IB kids' clique is actually the most impenetrable to the average, mainstream student.

"They keep to themselves," says a Hispanic girl named Astrid, today lunching at a table just behind them. "They're in their own little group. It's like they don't like to talk to you, 'cause you're not IB."

The IB kids, in turn, sometimes catch a chill from the others. Glantz says the rest of the school tends to look at them as "those IB white kids," even though membership clearly crosses ethnic boundaries.

"They look at us as stuck-up, rich, snobby," says Glantz, who passed on a private girls' school education at Xavier to come here. "But that's just the group they put us in. Once you get to know us, we're not like that at all."

The school deliberately schedules lunch for the IB-ers at the same time the mainstreamers eat (not all IB schools do) to encourage interaction between the two factions. "We want that trickle-down effect," says Craig Pletenick, community relations coordinator at North. "We want the smart kids getting together and collaborating and assimilating with the general student population."

You don't have to be particularly smart to figure out that that rarely happens.


Slamming the school your IB program's in -- and the mainstream students who dominate it -- is a popular pastime of International Baccalaureate students around the world. At the Web site IBscrewed.net, where stressed-out students in IB programs worldwide vent their frustrations and share their study tips, IB-ers often rant about the "ghetto" learning facilities where their esteemed program is offered.

"In my three years at being at North Miami Senior High, I've always wondered why such a crappy school gets a program like IB," writes one Florida teen. "Why should a program that prepares you for college be given to a hellhole like NMSH? There are a lot of people, including myself, who would leave that school in a second if that program weren't there. It's already a dying school, so why waste the program on it?"

Other submitters get into roasting the mainstream kids at their school, which appears to be a bit of a sport for some. "That's the one reason I'm still here," admits one IB brainiac on the Web site. "Superiority. The fact that I can walk down the hall and go, I'm smarter than you, you, you, you, waaaayyy smarter than you, you, you, and you, too, retard.' That keeps me going. That, and Mountain Dew. Both are necessary parts of IB: caffeine, and blatant badmouthing."

None of the IB students at North High come off quite as openly critical of their fellow students, or even of their outdated 66-year-old institution, built when its campus on 12th Street and Thomas was still considered north Phoenix. Still, there's a focus on material success among IB students that sometimes borders on a misplaced snobbism -- and occasionally even a streak of prejudice against the kids from the lower-income families in the neighborhoods surrounding the school.

"I have no interest in learning Spanish," says a girl on her way to an IB French class in the Liberal Arts building, even though a lot more of the girls she passes in the hallway are speaking Spanish than French. "It's the language of poverty. I mean, look at all the Spanish-speaking countries. Actually, I'd really like to learn Japanese."

Paul Lowes, a social studies teacher at North who instructs both IB and non-IB students, is concerned some of his high-minded IB kids devalue the laborer's work ethic built in to the heritage of the Hispanic culture around them, and focuses many of his lessons on Mexican and immigration history, "material too rarely taught in American secondary schools," he says.

Few of the IB kids show any signs of discrimination based on race. But the IB kids definitely show a bias against underachievers, or any students who don't have their eyes on the prize of a prestigious career and "wealthiness," a word that comes up on several students' lists of goals. "The one thing that separates us is we all have a higher common goal than the mainstream kids," says Jack Hannallah, a senior at North Canyon who's already banking on a career in medical technology. "We're striving to make the money, to get out there and get the higher-paying jobs when we graduate college. Not just to have as much fun as we can right now."

Problem is, most of the students who aren't in IB, especially at North, are Hispanic or black, reflective of a troubling national statistic: Together, these groups account for nearly one-third of the general population for this age group, yet students from these groups make up only 4 percent of the top SAT scorers.

After a while, the cultures of the non-IB groups begin to get mixed in with the things IB-ers consider beneath their intelligence. When Jacob and friends are asked what kinds of music they listen to, Sotelo quips, "Rap -- hard-core rap," and the others crack up.

"No, it's a lot of little nerdy white-boy bands," says Jacob Verburg. "You know, brainy rock."


In Michael Cady's third-period Theory of Knowledge class at North High, many of the students have brought in newspaper clippings today containing articles they feel pertain to ToK, the centerpiece course of the IB curriculum that deals with critical thinking, philosophy and, in the burly, bearded professor's own curious words, "how you know what you know."

A boy with short, dark hair and brainy black spectacles reads an article from the Smithsonian magazine detailing the plight of an MRI evolutionist disqualified for the Nobel Prize, and a girl in a black wool cap leads a discussion about sociopathic tendencies as applied to Saddam Hussein.

But the student interplay finally becomes lively when a few wry wiseacres get into a heated debate over a newspaper item concerning a drug-sniffing police dog charged with racial profiling.

"Aren't dogs supposed to be colorblind?" asks a boy in a floppy denim hat.

"I don't know. Maybe dogs can be trained to be racist," says a girl in a scarf and black oval-framed glasses.

"ToK is a weird class," says Ian Latchmansingh, an IB graduate from a Florida high school whose all-IB rock band, Captain Angry and the Bad Moods, actually recorded a comically scathing song about the class called "I Hate ToK," a popular download among some North IB students.

"It usually breaks down to three or four kids arguing across the room about things like, If you exist, then do you blink?'" he says. "It can get bitter at times, but most IB kids get off on that. Because you can take someone's belief and then tear it apart mercilessly with logic. It's great fun, but sometimes you forget to turn it off when you go out into the lunch yard."

"Most of the time, we just talk over their heads," says Andrew Friedman, a senior in North Canyon's IB program. "Non-IB kids recognize it when we talk that way -- they'll say, Oh, he's in IB Zone.' But sometimes it's hard to get out of that. To us, sarcasm and cynicism are just a part of how we talk."

That sarcasm is actually fostered in the IB classrooms, students say -- particularly in the Theory of Knowledge class, where the more talkative brains get to match wits with each other in freewheeling philosophical discussions on all matter of everyday life.

"There's always a supremacy complex, among everyone within IB, towards the regular students," says Latchmansingh. "You pretty much don't give them as much credit. It just happens gradually. And it's not like anything's built into the IB program to prevent that attitude," he adds. "Teachers promote it. In fact, IB teachers are probably the biggest supporters of the supremacy complex."


Charlie Toft, a physics teacher in the IB program at North who's also a huge fan of the Matrix movies, often feels like his students are plugged into an entirely different reality of high school life than are the mainstream kids.

"I've been teaching in the IB program for 10 years now, and I really don't know if I could go back to teaching mainstream classes," he says. Toft says that in his four years of teaching at Trevor Brown High School in west Phoenix, "all I felt like I was accomplishing was keeping everybody in their chairs and turning in homework. It was really just a management job.

"And then I came here," he says, waving his arm over the desks in his comfortable classroom in the North Sciences building. "And it was like, Oh, so this is teaching!'"

Fittingly, the IB teachers afford their adored brainiacs unique privileges never extended to mainstream students. "Sometimes you see a student drawing in class while you're giving a lesson, and you have to decide whether they're not paying attention, or whether that's just how they take their notes," says Marilyn Buehler, who recently retired from teaching IB English at North. "They're just used to multitasking."

Even administrators pamper the IB students, mindful that the IB kids keep that all-important "school label" in the "outstanding" range. "Our school label wouldn't be where it is if it weren't for these 400 kids who all exceed the AIMS on their first try," says Julie Pallissard, coordinator of North's IB program. At North, which actually closed for a while in the early '80s because of declining enrollment, IB is regarded as the magnet program that literally brought the school back.

Almost begrudgingly, the mainstream students admit to a certain respect for their brainier borders. "Hey, they're intelligent, so why shouldn't they show it?" says Astrid's friend Monica, back at the non-IB lunch table.

"I wish I could be like them," admits Astrid in a quiet voice, looking down at her cheese crisp.

It's a sentiment, sadly, that's apparently not shared by the IB kids. Whenever IB-ers talk about mainstreamers, there's seldom a touch of envy. And when they really get honest, as this one North High IB student did when she posted her opinions anonymously on the school's forum on schoolscum.com, they can be brutal.

"To sum it up," the girl wrote, "mainstream is not only stupid, but the majority of them will grow up to mow the lawns of the IB kids. IB kids rule."

"It's all right, I guess, to have them at our school as role models," says Astrid's friend Fernando, offering consolation. "But some of them could be nicer."

E-mail jimmy.magahern@newtimes.com, or call 602-229-8478.

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2 comments
annmarie.leonard
annmarie.leonard

What on earth was the point of this article?
It seems like an adult journalist set out to make smart kids who work hard look bad.
My my, what investigative journalism!

dreamtheater
dreamtheater

As an alumni of the IB program at North, I can say that at least now, this isn't really how things are. I mean, yes, there will always be a few jerks in the crowd, and some of my friends last year were snobs, but most of us just cared more about school.

 

Plus, the main reason we never reach out of the IB group is because, like many people, we don't want to break out of our group of friends. And we make most of our friends in our classes.

 
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