Bentley Adams wants to study languages and travel the world, but that dream will only come true after she gets through the International Baccalaureate program at what her friends call “Larghetto High School.”
“My parents really wanted me to go somewhere else, but I fell in love with Largo High,” the freshman said. “My dad went here when it was really ghetto, but now it’s so challenging and such a friendly atmosphere.”
A cookout and dodge ball game in Largo Central Park Wednesday celebrated the program’s final step toward accreditation: Monday’s announcement that it had been approved by the International Baccalaureate Organization. Juniors and seniors can now complete college-level coursework along with their regular high school requirements, potentially shaving years off the time they would have to spend in college.
Getting the program up and running, though, has been no picnic, school administrators say.
Largo High was a D school when it started establishing an IB program in 2011 and was viewed as a “dumping ground for the community,” where students worried about their safety, said IB teacher Todd Britton.
Now, for the first time in its history, Largo High is an A school, said Assistant Principal and IB coordinator Adam Lane.
The school’s first class of 11th-graders will start IB coursework next year. Because students don’t start taking IB courses until their junior and senior years, the ninth- and 10th-graders currently signed up for tougher pre-IB classes did so without knowing if the program would be approved. That experience helped students and teachers build trust, Lane said.
“Just three years ago, we had the lowest graduation rate in the county,” Lane said. “It took faith for these parents and students to trust that we would be able to pull this program off, but now we’re offering just as much as you would get in the district’s other two IB programs.”
St. Petersburg High School offered the first IB program in the state in 1983. Since then, the school has consistently been ranked as an A or B school, and the program has helped push students in the regular program, too, said Principal Albert Bennett. He predicted a similar impact in Largo.
“For some students, in some areas, it’s not cool to carry a backpack full of books and study in the library, but if you come here after school you’ll see kids all over studying,” Bennett said. “It’ll take a few years, but IB will make studying the norm for all of the students.”
Largo administrators spent hours in classes at St. Petersburg High and Palm Harbor University High the other Pinellas high school with an IB program to prepare for their program, Lane said. They also met with area middle schools to make sure their students would be prepared to for the rigorous program.
Largo Middle School is considering adding more foreign language classes next year and expanding honors courses to help students meet the IB entrance requirements, said Acting Principal Joann Rainey.
Largo High’s IB program also has virtually eradicated the long wait lists for the St. Petersburg and Palm Harbor programs. Students who qualify for IB will go to the program that’s closest to them.
“Now, any student that is qualified can get in,” Lane said. “There’s no waiting game.”
Largo High’s program is about 50 percent full with 100 students, Lane said. School administrators hope more will sign up.
Tenth-grader Alec Emser lives in Largo and had planned on enrolling in Palm Harbor’s IB program, along with several friends. When he heard Largo High was adding an IB program, though, he decided to go there; his father has taught math at the school for nearly eight years.
“I have friends in the other IB programs, and lots of them kind of look their nose down at Largo,” Alec said. “But once they hear about how much we get to interact with the other traditional students or how our teachers work with us collaboratively and kind of let us do our own thing, it starts to sound a lot better.”
When Julie Coulson decided to enroll her 10th-grader, Joshua, in the program, it was with trepidation, because of the school’s reputation. Ultimately, though, after looking at private, fundamental and charter schools, Largo High’s eclectic culture and determination won her over.
“You don’t get this diversity anywhere else,” Coulson said. “You want to set your child up to succeed, work with people from all walks of life and appreciate differences. It was a gamble, but he says he’s never been happier.”