Longform

Brainiacs

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"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.

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern