Hellgate’s IB Diploma Program Fails Students

Ali Caudle

In Feb. 2020, then-IB coordinator Christine Hiller-Claridge introduced sophomores to the IB Diploma Program (IBDP) ahead of course registration. Everything was so shiny and optimistic, and I was persuaded to pursue the IB Diploma. 

Now, 27 months and a global pandemic later, I see things differently, as do several other former IB diploma candidates from Hellgate. I talked to five of them anonymously: some who finished the program and others who dropped it. 

Honestly, I prefer IB’s method of teaching and testing to AP or standard level classes, as did others. 

“I liked IB’s ‘holistic’ approach: combining multiple disciplines, teaching you to be ‘globally-minded’, etc. I also think that overall the IB method of teaching (more project based) was an excellent way to prepare me for college. I appreciate that IB puts an emphasis on ‘what do you know? How can you apply it? Show us’ instead of ‘what can you memorize?’” said one 2020 graduate. 

“I think that IB has generally a much, much better way of teaching students than AP. I think IB students perform better in college. I think they actually teach you to think, I think they make you more engaged with school,” said another 2020 graduate. 

Hellgate’s fantastic teachers make IB courses bearable. I genuinely enjoyed my IB courses, and I appreciated the time and energy our teachers put into making them positive learning experiences. 

“The teachers are what really made the program,” said the first 2020 graduate. “I learned a ton in their classes, both about the course material and how to develop a proper work ethic. If it weren’t for them and the amount of work that they personally invested into the program, it would not have been anywhere near as enjoyable of an experience.”     

While IB is a wonderful educational model, it’s carried out poorly to the extent that it often harms the very students it is meant to serve.  The problem lies with the structure of the program at Hellgate, not the IBDP itself. 

The IBDP has been dying a slow death over the last couple years as funding dried up and the administration neglected the program. The school district’s refusal to adequately appropriate funds to the IB program at Hellgate marks a fundamental misunderstanding of Hellgate’s educational model. 

“I think that it’s very sad that the administration is not dedicating time to it and it’s not being open or honest with its student body about it,” said the second 2020 graduate. 

IB students are extremely driven, with a passion for learning. “I’m someone who does really well when I stay busy, and doing IB on top of working, an internship, and being a competitive athlete was the kind of grind that kept me sustained,” said the first 2020 graduate. “Most IB kids are hard workers who stay busy; it’s our nature, it’s part of what drew us to a rigorous program like IB in the first place. Many of us were balancing extracurriculars with school.” 

The student from the class of 2023 lamented that all of her time was allocated to getting the IB diploma. “As the year progressed I began to fall behind. It became more and more challenging to manage my clubs and sports with my responsibilities for IB. Responsibilities that were never clearly presented to me, but that I had to find out on my own.” 

“Miller himself has told multiple parents (my own included) that IB kids just have to ’choose’ between the IB curriculum, or being involved in extracurricular activities. However this honestly goes against the whole IB philosophy of being well-rounded and open to new experiences, which I think demonstrates his overall lack of understanding of the program’s goals in the first place,” said the first 2020 graduate. 

“Ultimately, there were times where I was ridiculously tired, overworked, and frustrated, only to be told I wasn’t trying hard enough by some teachers and the administration,” she said. 

These graduates, and I, recognize now the immense toll attempting the IB Diploma program took on our mental health. 

“I think the way that Hellgate structured their IB program made it so that they were putting their students under an incredible amount of stress. I barely slept in high school. I remember having that… zero period class. And it was like all the super depressed IB kids. I feel like I’m  ‘doom painting’ this,” said the second 2020 graduate. “I was incredibly depressed when I was in high school. Like I think probably the worst my mental health has ever been. There are literally periods of high school I just don’t remember because I think my brain just blocked it out… I just think that’s so [messed] up that the administration makes it so hard on students, and you’re literally like 16 and 17. You’re babies.” 

A mental health crisis was why I ultimately dropped the program last August. I wasn’t the only one. “During my junior year, despite the complications due to corona, I pushed myself hard and in the process I lost sight of the point: to learn. Going into my senior year I had to make the decision to opt out of the diploma program, for my own physical and mental health. I was put in a place to choose between my passion, and having a leg up when it comes to college,” said a fellow senior and former diploma candidate. 

“I chose my passion, which is to learn, to adapt my perspective, to have an open mind. I feel like all of those aspects were lost in the pile of work and deadlines,” she added. “I think the focus of the IB program, conceptual learning, was lost in the usual, mundane assignment process.” 

“Late nights staying up doing homework with early mornings turned into late work extensions, office hours visits, and staying late after school. Slowly, but surely we were all getting more anxious and more stressed,” shared a current junior and former diploma candidate. 

This was “terrible for my mental health,” said the 2021 graduate. “IB students are praised as being elite students and expected to have our life together. The workload IB demands and the lack of communication between coordinators and students made for a very unhealthy environment.” 

“We were constantly being ridiculed for how “lazy” we were if we were slow to keep up with the Extended Essay deadlines, or didn’t show up to zero period on time,” the first 2020 graduate remembered. “One teacher in particular… told us many times that he wanted to call our IB class “The Minimalists” for how little work we seemed to want to put in. Keep in mind, he was generally addressing a room of zonked-out kids, many of whom were up until midnight doing homework the night before, only to show up at 6:30 in the morning the next day. It could be incredibly frustrating and condescending, especially if we tried to advocate for ourselves, explain why we might occasionally slip up, miss deadlines, or show up to class a few minutes late.” 

Due to a lack of communication between teachers and the IB coordinator, a lot of the time students were still left to figure things out on their own. 

“Some [teachers] do care about IB and some of them don’t, and the ones that don’t have no idea how to teach it. And I think that is because they don’t get administrative support. I don’t think it’s the teachers’ fault,” said the second 2020 graduate. However, she explained, “a lot of times students are expected to fulfill the requirements for the IB diploma largely on their own time and with their own guidance.” 

The 2021 graduate described the program, especially in her second year, as “unorganized.” “It was a consensus among students that we felt out of the loop and confused as to what was expected of us,” she said. 

This is, unfortunately, still true. “Due to the limited number of IB Diploma students, our required preparative work was often pushed by the wayside or assigned to us on top of the class homework,” shared the student from the class of 2023. “As if I had enough time as it was! It eventually became blatantly obvious to me that many of the teachers of IB didn’t support or enjoy this program. They saw the flaws, and they saw their diploma students deteriorating from unnecessary stress.” 

IB is often presented as the way to get into elite universities. Many students dreaming of attending a top university will force themselves into the mold of an IB student, conforming to the strict limitations of the program with a very specific set of classes. 

“There’s indicators that individuals who are doing the IB program are also likely to be individuals that are accelerated in math or accelerated in the other tracks,” said the second 2020 graduate. “When there’s failure from the administration to also cater to those individuals, I think it becomes a very cyclical problem.” 

“The actual classes that are currently part of the IB diploma are not classes that are necessarily something that students would want. It’s like suddenly students are having to choose between having the academic boost of having the diploma versus actually taking classes that are going to get them into their colleges. It’s kind of like the administration has created this really awful catch-22,” she continued. 

Classes like IB Math get cut halfway through, leaving students hanging. This happened to the class of 2020, and to my class. I put so much time into the first year of the two-year IB Analysis and Approaches math course, only to be told at the end of the year that finishing the class was not an option. Hellgate wouldn’t offer the Year 2 course, leaving students scrambling to choose between AP Stats, AP Calc, a different IB math studies course, or attending the IB Math course at Big Sky via Zoom. 

“I signed up for two years of standard level math. I worked hard in year one, preparing for year two. Yet because limited students signed up for the course, the school just decided not to offer it, effectively screwing us all over for our math requirement. They didn’t seem to understand the implications of this at the time, nor try to correct it,” said the first 2020 graduate. 

“It also seems like it became very, very difficult for students to take a credit load that would look appealing to colleges while also fulfilling the IB diploma,” said the second 2020 graduate. “IB Bio being removed also means that you’re really limiting students who are on a STEM track and their ability to do the IB diploma.” 

I understand that scheduling different IB ‘singleton’ classes poses challenges under Hellgate’s master schedule model, but these issues prevented the IB program from fully realizing its potential. 

“The administration… didn’t seem to have a clue how IB was supposed to function. They’d arbitrarily offer and then take away classes we needed, only offer certain classes as zero periods, and really failed to garner widespread support for the program and develop it as a result,” said the first 2020 graduate. 

While the pandemic was a factor, this lack of support is a key reason there are no remaining IB candidates from the Class of 2022. There are reportedly only two remaining candidates from the Class of 2023. 

“While I believe this program has the potential to be great, it can only be great if done well. If it can not be done well it is not worth doing at all,” said the former 2023 diploma candidate. 

Between the strict constraints of the IBDP, and the MCPS graduation requirements, it is nearly impossible to find a schedule that works for an IB student. And forget about trying to continue taking classes you’re passionate about; whether that’s art, journalism, or music, it likely won’t work if you pursue the IB Diploma. 

Rather than help these students achieve their goals, the IBDP only seems to make everything more challenging. 

“I think that having the scholarship that I have is a life-changing opportunity,” said the second 2020 graduate. “I think that the fact that people who follow me, in generations to come from Hellgate, aren’t going to have that, that I was kind of the tail end of the functioning IB diploma is incredibly sad and it’s also inequitable.” 

Quite honestly, if we’re going to run a dysfunctional IB program, Hellgate should stop offering it. We need to stop high achieving students from getting trapped in these horrible cycles, starting the IBDP and failing to finish. 

“I think that the administration should either literally cut the IB diploma or go full-fledged into it. I think doing it half-assed is incredibly bad for a myriad of reasons,” said the second 2020 graduate. 

The school system has a responsibility to all of its students. If we can’t offer IB in a way that truly benefits students, we should focus on building up our AP program. I may prefer IB classes, but I think it’s more important that bright students have a chance to take a variety of rigorous courses without feeling pressured to be trapped in the diploma program. 

“I think that the failure of the IB diploma program speaks to the fact that Hellgate repeatedly fails to actually help their top 10% of students. And I think that it influences individuals on a micro level, but it also, on a macro level, is generally just very bad for Hellgate students and Hellgate optically as a whole,” added the second 2020 graduate. 

I will always be an advocate for IB, but in the end, I believe it comes down to preserving a stable and supportive academic environment for all students – and if we refuse to provide that for IB students, it’s not worth it. If the choice is between letting IB die a slow death, or cutting it off now to save future students from the pain, let’s end it.