Elections, the old saying goes, have consequences.
And one of the consequences of last November’s election will impact Alonso High School, potentially reshaping the role it plays in the education of Westchase and Northwest Hillsborough County students.
The November 2018 election saw West Hampton resident Steve Cona win a school board seat long held by Susan Valdes, faulted by some Northwest Hillsborough folks for not adequately prioritizing their concerns.
Upon his election, Cona undertook a tour of schools lying in District 1, which, in part, encompasses areas served by Alonso and Sickles high schools. He spoke to their administrators, teachers and families to understand their priorities. “Listening and brainstorming with constituents, brings out the best ideas,” he told WOW.
Hearing from parents prompted him to pitch a whole new program at Alonso, an International Baccalaureate program to complement its existing traditional curriculum.
“Our district offers a wide variety of educational programs, but they are spread out all over the county,” he stated. “Creating an International Baccalaureate (IB) High School in District 1 is an idea that just made sense, ensuring parents and students have equitable access to same quality educational programs within their own district.”
Currently more than 60 Westchase students—and nearly 100 from the 33626 zip code—make an hour and a half round-trip commute to Robinson High School’s International Baccalaureate Program at the bottom of South Tampa, a few blocks north of MacDill Air Force Base. The travel, combined with the program’s demands, make participation in extracurriculars a challenge. Having an IB program closer to home not only would keep more Westchase students at Alonso, potentially nudging up its school grade, it would also enable the IB students to participate in more after-school activities.
When Cona began pushing for the option at a school district workshop, talk of the potential program began to fly in the Northwest once WOW broke the story on its Facebook group, Westchase Neighborhood News.
But, as Cona learned, there were a lot of hurdles to clear before it could become reality.
In April, Cona and Superintendent Jeff Eakins spoke with WOW to finally announce the news was official: Alonso would debut an IB curriculum track for freshmen entering August 2020. “Creating a fifth IB high school at Alonso was my first priority since joining the board and I am proud to report this will be done,” stated Cona. “I am extremely grateful for the vision of our board and superintendent to expand these types of educational offerings. We have so many people in the district who are working extremely hard to implement this program for our students.”
At deadline, those involved in planning the new program made clear that all details of the program have not been completely nailed down, but much is known.
Why the long lead time of 15 months before it happens?
Establishing an IB program is a multiyear process. Superintendent Jeff Eakins said the district would make an application this fall with the International Baccalaureate organization to establish an Alonso IB program. “You become an IB candidate school,” he said, after submission of the application. “After that, they do a review of your school and you become a full-blown IB program.”
While certification is underway, Alonso will accept its first IB freshmen in August of 2020. According to Eakins, there is a good chance the school will be a fully certified IB program by the time those freshmen start their sophomore year. (Under current practices, the freshman and sophomore years of all IB schools are deemed pre-IB, with junior and senior years officially leading to the testing that rewards the IB diploma.)
So will Alonso follow the traditional Hillsborough model for IB high schools?
No, at least not initially.
“This is a newer model,” said Eakins. “We’re trying to push the district to be more client focused.”
In the past, IB high schools have hosted a traditional curriculum for those students who live within its school zone and who don’t wish to pursue an IB diploma. Meanwhile, students from inside and outside the school’s traditional boundaries can apply to attend the IB program there.
Initially, however, access to Alonso’s IB program will be limited to those families within the school’s traditional boundaries. “We will start by making it available for boundary students,” said Eakins. “From then we’d have to determine what students to open it up to due to capacity.”
Area Superintendent Marcus Murillo, speaking to WOW after a planning meeting on April 1, said that Alonso expects solid growth from within its boundaries for the new IB program, yet as attendance numbers become clearer, the district could open attendance to choice for students currently zoned for Sickles High School, making their time-consuming trek to Hillsborough High School’s IB program unnecessary.
Murillo also sought to reassure families whose students are currently at Robinson or starting its IB program in August 2019. “The kids at Robinson will be able to stay at Robinson,” he stated. He added the Westchase bus to Robinson will remain in place.
Murillo also expects that families zoned for Alonso will still be given the option of choosing a different IB high school if they wish.
“Nothing will be cut,” said Murrillo. “We’re providing more options to the families in our community.”
There’s one caveat. The current plan is to start Alonso’s program with just its August 2020 freshmen cohort. The IB program will then add a grade each subsequent year until it covers all four years. This means that Robinson upper classmen who might wish to transfer will need to finish at Robinson rather than attending closer to home.
But will Alonso’s IB program, which could potentially keep as many as 100 Westchase and Northwest students at Alonso, significantly lower attendance at Robinson?
“All of our current IB schools are still going to have waiting lists,” said Eakins. He said the new program will simply expand IB opportunities for students who currently aren’t accepted into the program due to space constraints.
With the new program, Alonso faces some changes and challenges as well.
The traditional and IB kids will have different schedules. Traditional students have an eight-period day with each period lasting 47 minutes. IB students have four 90-minute periods daily, following an A-day schedule and a B-day schedule. Principal Ken Hart, however, is determined that Alonso will keep a unified identity, despite having the two distinct tracks. “The IB student will be a student at Alonso High School. Our job will be to maintain the highest level of instruction on both sides.”
Hart added, “My goal is to see the two programs be as integrated as much as possible. I truly don’t want two high schools here.”
Hart also knows he’ll be doing some hiring and training to ensure approaches in IB classrooms reflect IB pedagogical practices. “We’ll be looking for the best teachers,” he said. “A master’s degree in content will be the expectation.” He added, however, that there are teachers currently on staff who are qualified to take on the new IB curriculum.
Like with other high schools with IB programs, Hart said Alonso will bring on another assistant principal who will oversee the IB side of things, including scheduling.
Hart thinks that the program could eventually bring 400 additional students into Alonso, bringing the school population to 3,100. “We’ll be really, really tight,” he said when Alonso reached those numbers. “We’d be looking at the district for additional classroom space.”
Gathering at Alonso for this month’s cover photo, Cona, however, observed that a future possibility for expansion might lie with the school’s newest classroom wing, which was built to enable the construction of a second story of classrooms. That decision, however, would require significant district funding.
Since the news broke, Hart said Alonso’s community has been excited and even incoming parents have been inquiring about it. “Our faculty is very excited about it and the community parents also.”
When asked if it would impact Alonso’s grade, making it a bit easier for the school to achieve an A grade, up from its current B, Hart said that was not the motivation for adopting the program but added, “I would be lying if I didn’t say it would go up. Having that level of youngsters with that academic ability will help.”
Yes, there will be scheduling, staffing and logistic challenges and Hart emphasized the importance of being transparent with the adoption process and goals. First up for Hart, however, is educating his parents and the greater community about IB, its focus and its demands. “We need to educate our entire community as to the rigor and depth and scope of the program,” he said, emphasizing the school had to offer a realistic description. “Not every kid is AP. Even fewer of them are IB.”
Hart added, “I think it’s a tremendously positive thing for our children and community. This is best for our kids. That’s all I care about—to make it work.”
By Chris Barrett, Publisher