International Baccalaureate students learn that the best revenge for a nerd is a great education -- in elitism
BY JIMMY MAGAHERN
Published: Phoenix New Times, Thursday, January 15, 2004
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."
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.
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
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
To which Sotelo adds, ironically,
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
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
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
But a quick polling of surrounding tables reveals
the IB kids' clique is actually the most impenetrable to the average,
"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
"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
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,"
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
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
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
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
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."