Graduates of West Ottawa's International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program are finding they have a leg up on other students when it comes to exceling at college.

The goal of the internationally recognized program is to prepare students for a rapidly evolving and increasingly global society and for success at college and life beyond. IB requires students to take courses from six subject groups, study at least two languages and their cultures, and undertake in-depth research resulting in a lengthy essay.

West Ottawa High School is one of only 26 schools in Michigan offering this academically challenging and balanced program. The high school has enrolled 10 students a year since it began offering the program in September 2011, but next year's enrollment could nearly double to 18 students, says program coordinator and business teacher Corban Van Dam. Two elementary schools in the West Ottawa district also are using the IB program.

"It's a challenging program. But it's good for kids," says Corban, a 12-year teaching veteran. "In all my years of teaching, I've never seen anything quite like IB."

Kayla Lohman, a West Ottawa graduate, says the rigor of the IB program prepared her for tough classes at the University of Minnesota. It also helped her develop personal skills such as independence, motivation and endurance, and enabled her to test out of a wide variety of required classes.

"Essentially all of my liberal education requirements have been fulfilled, so I can focus on what I want to study," Kayla says.

Parents of students who have received their IB diploma are helping promote the program's advantages.

"Our parents are out in the community serving as ambassadors," Corban says. "We've develop a network of people selling IB."

Since starting their college classes last fall, the 10 students who completed the program in 2011-12 have been overwhelmingly positive about its benefits.

Kim Blair says he had an easier transition to the University of Michigan because of the critical thinking skills he learned in the program. Cinthia Medina says the IB program taught her to how to manage her time and set priorities. Now a Western Michigan University student, she says she came to college able to communicate clearly and with an inquiring mind, two essential attributes to higher learning.

"In IB, I got to know my peers well, but I also came to know myself," Cinthia says. "I'm not fearful of expressing my opinions in class. Overall, college has not been the dark, frightening place I once thought it would be, thanks to IB."

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