Smart and Smarter
Image: James Yang

THE QUESTION SHOOK Molly Seaverns from her bed like a late-night earthquake: “If the viaduct goes down, where will my kids go to high school?” It was 2004 and the longtime West Seattle resident was still three years and a natural disaster away from needing to worry about her older son’s post-middle school plans. But given her choices on the peninsula, it was a justified freakout: Chief Sealth had long been considered a school for slackers, and at the time West Seattle High had just a four-period day. “I’d been around schools long enough to know that they’re like battleships,” Seaverns says. “They take a while to turn around.”

After her viaduct-inspired panic attack, she found the solution to her quality-school conundrum on the other end of the city. Since 2002, North Seattle’s Ingraham High School had offered an International Baccalaureate degree, and after touring the school and seeing the impressive results they were getting, she set out to convince one of West Seattle’s high schools to launch a similar program. IB is a decades-old system of challenging college-prep courses that 11th and 12th graders can take a la carte or combined in a two-year diploma track. Students tackle subjects in greater depth than in AP courses, they take a discussion-heavy class that explores how they know what they know, and their test scores are verified by IB administrators outside of the school. “When you have an IB program, it lets the whole world know that you have rigorous, well-rounded classes that don’t have any grade inflation,” says Ingraham’s principal, Martin Floe. “It’s meaningful.”

Heartened by what she’d learned at Ingraham, Seaverns invited community members and the instructional councils from Chief Sealth and West Seattle High for a meeting of the minds at the Fauntleroy Community Center to pitch them on her IB plan. Nearly 250 people packed the house. (“It was really exciting,” Seaverns says about the turnout. “Usually you can get people to show up if they’re angry about something, but it’s really hard to motivate people to think about, ‘What if?’ ”) One of the attendees was Chief Sealth’s new principal, John Boyd. He’d been looking for a way to draw neighborhood kids back to the school, and this, he thought, was it. “From a grassroots demand standpoint, we felt it could be powerful for our school,” he says. “The prestige of IB changes the image of schools.” Boyd walked out of the meeting energized and presented the idea to his teachers. Nearly 80 percent were in favor of installing the program at Chief Sealth.

In 2007—after some in-depth internal discussions and a yearlong accreditation process—Chief Sealth rolled out its IB offering. By the next year, 14 juniors had signed up for the full diploma program. This year, 115 juniors and 75 seniors are taking at least one IB course. Even better, the program’s emphasis on deep thought is starting to seep out of the classrooms and into the school’s culture. “Kids used to talk about what was happening at homecoming,” says Chief Sealth’s IB coordinator, Laura Robb. “Now you hear kids talking about what they did in class and having intellectual discussions in the school.”

Actually, the IB bug is spreading outside the school, too. The viaduct hasn’t come down and Seaverns’s sons ended up going to Garfield (having begun the Advanced Placement program in middle school, they were guaranteed admittance), but the IB program is already accomplishing one of her other goals: reducing the number of West Seattle defectors. “I care about my community and friends,” she says, “and I really didn’t want anybody else moving out because they didn’t have options.”