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IB Diploma: Unique Advancement Opportunity or Additional Stress?

Although it is optional, many students in BIHS decide to pursue the International Baccalaureate diploma. How does this choice affect their experiences in BIHS?

As students at Berkeley High School (BHS) wrap up picking their classes for the following year, ninth graders have the additional task of choosing the small learning community (SLC) they will join for the next three years. Of the five small schools offered, the majority of students will end up in Academic Choice (AC) or Berkeley International High School (BIHS). BIHS has a tighter set of required classes for its students than AC, as it is a pathway for students pursuing the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma. However, many students that pick BIHS as their SLC choose not to go for the diploma. 

“I did not want the diploma because it seemed like it would be too much work, and [would] not actually help me get into the colleges I wanted to go to,” said Lucas Cutter, a senior in BIHS. The road to the diploma can be draining and requires extra projects, tests, and classes to be taken by students should they choose to pursue it. 

“[Among] my other friends in BIHS, about half decided not to go [for the diploma] because of the amount of work. The other half are using it for their college applications,” commented Cutter. Every student in BIHS, whether they go for the diploma or not, is required to take five IB courses. Students seeking the diploma take five additional IB classes, along with six IB tests, an extended essay (EE), and creativity/action/service (CAS) projects. For Cutter, and many of the students in BIHS, the diploma just does not feel worth it — especially if they are not going to college internationally.

For students who are looking to travel abroad for college, some find major benefits from the diploma. Cora Harte, a junior in BIHS, viewed the IB diploma as an opportunity for college when she signed up for BIHS. Harte said, “I wanted to make it easier on myself to go to school internationally because, if you have the diploma, it is much easier to transfer credits to a school [in another country].” 

Ben Schiff, a sophomore in BIHS, is not looking to travel abroad, but like Harte, he saw the benefit for college applications. “I am already taking hard IB classes, so I might as well take a few extra and benefit from the diploma when applying to college,” Schiff attested. However, like Cutter, Schiff agreed that many of his peers in BIHS were not going for the diploma. “Out of my few friends in BIHS, only one that I know of is going for the diploma,” he said. 

According to the BIHS FAQ page, “A very small percentage of students join international programs after they graduate from BIHS (seriously, like maybe 5 or 6 people).” Of each graduating BIHS class, 25 to 50 percent of seniors complete the diploma. 

With the pandemic, it is easy to believe that the diploma program created an additional source of stress for students on top of their normal classes. However, Rebecca Villagran, a co-lead teacher for BIHS, stated otherwise. “I think the pandemic has been horrible for student mental health in general, but that perhaps the diploma option is maybe easier. Instead of having to take lots of in-person tests, students only need to do the Internal Assessments for their courses and write their EE,” she said. 

However, Villagran noted that this year is very different from years past. “I [have seen] students in the past getting an overwhelming amount of work due to the IB Diploma, because you have to take so many IB courses at the same time,” she said. 

So, is it really worth it for BHS to continue offering the diploma program if the workload is so extensive and not all students in BIHS choose to pursue it? Cutter, Harte, and Schiff all believed that, whether they themselves choose to go for it or not, the diploma is still an important resource for BHS to provide. Students have found that the diploma creates a challenging academic opportunity for them to push themselves in high school, and to receive a possible boost on college applications. 

Villagran felt that the diploma is not for everyone, and that it is an individual choice for each student in BIHS. Cutter echoed this statement, saying, “Even though I did not choose to pursue the diploma, I think it is an important program. I really like that BHS makes it optional so everyone has the opportunity to decide what route is best for them.”

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