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‘The payoff is certainly worth it’

November 29, 2018

 

By KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT

Rutherford County Schools

 

For the past 10 years, the International Baccalaureate program at Oakland High School has cultivated a culture of curiosity among a tightknit community of high-achieving students.

 

In that time, graduates of the program have earned several Fulbright scholarships and been a finalist as a Rhodes Scholar, enrolled in Ivy League universities, and studied everything from finance, law, leadership, politics, engineering, aerospace and medicine.

 

Austin Hornsby, who graduated in 2010, is an F-16 pilot in the United State Air Force. Hornsby said he has the “coolest job I could have ever dreamed of.”

 

“It started with the IB classes in high school,” he wrote in an email. “People ask me all the time how I got to be a fighter pilot, and I say because I went to the Air Force Academy. I never would have been accepted to, or succeeded at, USAFA without IB.”

 

Prior to going overseas, Hornsby joked he was going “to bring the IB diploma fury to the bad dudes downrange.”

 

Past graduates have found themselves traveling, working and living in exotic locales.

 

Eric Peters was a Fulbright Scholar in Prague, Savannah Caffey is currently in Madagascar, Warner Fuston is in Korea and Jarrod Hargis recently traveled to the United Republic of Tanzania, Africa, where he climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro.

 

Not everyone has gone overseas.

 

Phillip Dodd was in Washington, D.C., where he worked for U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who represents Alaska, for more than three years. Sadie Hampton was in Ohio before taking a new position in Tampa, Florida, with Royal Caribbean International.

 

Alan Phrommala is currently attending Emory University and Josh Walker is at Auburn University, while Alvin Synarong is currently a sophomore at Princeton University.

 

IB graduates are spread out from New York City – Jackson Vaught works on Wall Street – down to Atlanta and all the way up to Seattle, Washington. Others are closer to home – Chattanooga, Knoxville and Huntsville, Alabama – and, of course, many of them remain here in the Middle Tennessee region.

 

Witnessing what others have achieved through the IB program provides an incentive for the current students in the program, Oakland Principal John Marshall said.

 

“It's always good for them to see the success of the students who have gone before them,” Marshall said, “and the opportunities that increase for them based on the education available to them through the IB program.”

 

Kalkidan Dejene, a senior IB diploma candidate, began planning the Festival of Nations last spring. The senior IB diploma candidate worked with Quintana Lytle to create the October event as a way of acknowledging and celebrating the diversity of Oakland’s student body.

 

It was held during homecoming week.

 

The project was entirely student-driven.

 

Students and parents set up culturally diverse information tables based on their own backgrounds. More than 15 countries were represented and each of the displays included artifacts and objects that symbolize their countries, traditional music and dance, and authentic food.

 

Kalkidan said she conceived the idea — student projects like this are integral to the IB experience — as a way to introduce various ethnic groups and “to help everyone to learn to appreciate the diversity that is present at my school.”

 

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Preparation for adding the IB program to Oakland’s curriculum began in the fall of 2006 under then principal Butch Vaughn.

 

The diploma program is an academically rigorous university preparation program for juniors and seniors. In addition to taking an IB class in each of six areas, students complete an extended essay, challenge themselves to be creative, active and service-minded. They also enroll in Theory of Knowledge, a class focused on critical thinking and questioning.

 

Incoming students interested in being accepted to the IB program must score at or above the 80th percentile in two reporting areas on the most recent nationally normed standardized test – TNReady, Stanford Achievement Test or Iowa Test of Basic Skills – and maintain a minimum grade point average of 3.0 in core courses of English, math, science and social studies.

 

An informational meeting for parents of students interested in enrolling in the Oakland IB program will be Jan. 15 at 6 p.m. Applications are available now and the priority deadline is Feb. 15, 2019.

 

The first group to be admitted as IB diploma candidates, commonly referred to as The Nine, enrolled as juniors in August 2008.

 

They graduated in May 2010.

 

Former IB coordinator Dr. Kelly Chastain said it was a small group that was patient with the IB staff as they went through a slow yet steady learning curve as educators adjusting to a new approach to teaching.

 

“We were all figuring it out together,” Chastain said. “You knew they were going to be held accountable … and you were trying to prepare them to take these assessments, so that part was daunting.”

 

Chastain added, “They would come in on Saturdays and we would do study sessions and I told them, ‘If you guys commit to doing the work, when you’re done with the test in May then you can pull the emergency shower, which was in the science lab.’”

 

It had never previously been pulled.

 

It was a year out and Chastain thought they would forget.

 

She was wrong.

 

She also had no idea the floor was slopped toward the hallway.

 

The week following their testing, all nine of them — Trevor Hornsby, Austin Hornsby, Samantha Gardner, Alex Gardner, Julia Greene, Natalie “Terze” Wilbur, Jarod Hargis, Phillip Dodd and Ashlee Kasper— showed up unannounced in swim trunks and T-shirts with towels slung over their shoulders.

 

They pulled the release.

 

And almost immediately everyone, including Chastain, realized it was probably a mistake. The room flooded in minutes and the water went out into the hallway.

 

“It happened,” said Chastain, who recalled, “They had to bring down the squeegees they use on turf. They had to get it from the tennis coach. … That’s how these kids were. They handled the cleanup.”

 

Chastain added, “It never happened again.”

 

Those first nine students and each graduating class since then — the Class of 2019 will be the 10th class to earn IB diplomas — not only develop as young minds, but collectively as a group because of the unique course structure.

 

For one, classes are two years in length as opposed to one semester or one school year.

 

IB classes are metacognitive, Chastain said, in that students are “thinking about thinking.”

 

“What is so valuable about the program itself is how the curriculum intentionally integrates across subjects,” Chastain said. “It is current, it drives thinking, it drives communication, it allows (students) to see connections on a broad scale and it is very freeing as a teacher to be in that environment.

 

“Instead of memorizing facts, we’re helping students communicate answers and solve problems,” she continued. “You can see kids transform.”

 

Kids enter the program having always been taught to look for the right answers.

 

By the time they graduate, they become freethinkers. It’s less about everyone having the same answers and more about developing their own thoughts and theories, and supporting those thoughts with their own independent research.

 

LeAnn Hays, a librarian at Oakland who has assisted many of the diploma candidates with identifying resources for their research projects, said she reminds students to choose topics they’re passionate about.

 

Over the years, students have analyzed the impact of Title IX in college sports, studied the effects different musical styles have on plant growth, global economies in countries like the Philippines, Japan and China, the impact of exercise on lung capacity and one student, who had an autistic brother, extensively researched various types of therapy for autism.

 

In an effort to better prepare students prior to enrolling at the high school, Oakland Middle School now offers a Middle Years Program, which is an early stage IB program. It preps potential IB students for the rigors of the IB program at the high school level.

 

Tandra Martin graduated from Oakland in 2011 and said if it was not for the IB program she would not have studied international relations at Middle Tennessee State University.

 

“I’m eternally grateful for the experience I had as an IB kid,” Martin said. “It can be for any student who is committed to the rigor of academia and committed to the process of taking on the challenges … but the payoff is certainly worth it.”

 

Martin dreamed of attending New York University.

 

She applied and was accepted to the prestigious university.

 

However, the maturity she showed throughout her years at Oakland came to the forefront when she decided to stay in Murfreesboro instead of creating a financial strain on her family. In staying at home, she received a Buchanan Fellowship from the Honors College and later became the first student in MTSU history to become a Rhodes finalist and ultimately received a Fulbright scholarship.

 

“The IB coursework really kind of helped instill in me faith in my abilities, but also life,” Martin said. “I believe that God has a plan.”

 

She is currently working as the Director for the Office of Postsecondary Coordination and Alignment for the Tennessee Department of Education.

 

Martin is also completing her graduate work in the leadership and public service program at Lipscomb University.

 

“The IB program really just kind of expanded my thinking,” said Martin, who remains close with her fellow IB graduates, “and questioning my own sort of beliefs and value systems and how that has informed my approach to academic coursework.”

 

Martin added, “In my first couple of years of undergrad I was pretty risk averse, but I think the IB program kind of started to sow the seeds of taking some calculated risks. I’m more of a global citizen and aware of the rest of the world.”

 

In college, she studied in Morocco and later South Africa — a bold step considering its racial history.

 

In any case, despite the hard work and long hours of a rigorous program like IB, Martin still made time during her high school years to get together socially with friends.

 

There was the Friday night in April 2011 when she and a few other girls gathered with the intention of watching Prince William exchange wedding vows with Catherine Middleton. The classmates eventually lost interest in the royal wedding and instead “ended up studying,” Martin said.

 

“They get better at managing their class load and their class projects,” Hays said. “They learn to say no and when to say yes better than when they’re freshmen.”

 

During the next decade, the IB program will continue to evolve but the principal says his vision and desired outcome remains the same.

 

“We want to continue to provide one of the most academically rigorous programs in Rutherford County and the region,” Marshall said.

 

And students in the program will be empowered, Chastain concluded.

 

“They are prepared for whatever the next step is,” she said. “I fully believe it.”

 

PHOTOS PROVIDED

 

MAIN PHOTO:Kalkidan Dejene (L) and Quintana Lytle (R) began planning this year’s Festival of Nations event last spring as a way to acknowledge and celebrate the diversity of Oakland students.

 

REMAINING PHOTOS

ONE: Anne Nguyen and Callum Hay looking in nets during IB biology creek study; Ashley Phanthala (red dress) performing a traditional dance from Laos during the Festival of Nations; TWO: (Top Row, L to R) Kalkidan Dejene, Bemnet Argaw, Meba Agemasu, Yemariam Gebeyehu and (Bottom Row L to R) Kidist Akilile and Lydia Gebru; THREE: Samantha Guzman representing Puerto Rico at Festival of Nations; Zoey Montgomery, Ashley Phanthala and Shevaughn Holness doing IB Biology creek study; FOUR: Lizzy Roth doing independent enzyme lab for IB biology; FIVE: Andy Wei and Nima Tayefeh in lab class; SIX: (Top Row L to R) Nicholas Vaden, Haley Patterson, Kaitlyn Harris, Abby Jarrett and Rachel Massaro and (Bottom Row L to R) Shelby Parker, Jackie Powlis and Reagan Parker helping to build a home for Habitat for Humanity; SEVEN: Shevaughn Holness at lab station.