A few days ago we announced that a Paterson Public Schools graduate made history. Aamya Perez, 2019 valedictorian of International High School (IHS) and member of the district’s first group of International Baccalaureate (IB) graduates, became the district’s first student to earn an IB diploma. 

She was not the only one who tried. Twenty-three students out of the 44 who were in the program’s first group of graduates opted to become candidates for the full IB diploma requirements. Five of those 23 students came within just a couple of points of the diploma’s 24-point minimum, and they will resubmit their work in the next cycle to appeal the decision. Meanwhile, all 44 IB students graduated high school and are attending colleges including the University of Pennsylvania, The Citadel, Howard University and Case Western Reserve University.

To understand how incredibly hard all of these students have worked – and to appreciate the callouses a student can develop by plowing through the long quest for an IB diploma – it’s worth looking at the journey through the lens of Aamya’s experience. 

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First, Aamya chose to participate in the IB program more than four years ago. As an IB student, Aamya had a course load that was more rigorous than the district’s high school curriculum. It includes the Theory of Knowledge course, a unique cornerstone of the IB program that is designed to help students reflect on how they learn and how different areas of their education fit together.

 To earn the IB diploma, Aamya sat for numerous hour-long exams in six subject areas during her last two years of high school. Only one, a physics exam, was multiple-choice. The rest of the exams – including the three Aamya took in history, and two in English Language Arts – were either short written answers or essay questions. All of these were judged against rigorous international grading criteria.

Aamya’s two-year slog of exam taking was an effort to score a maximum of seven points in each of the six subject areas, which would be applied toward the required 24-point minimum.  

She earned additional points through her extended essay. For a solid year, Aamya delved into the question of whether in vitro fertilization (IVF) had become the norm for United States citizens, a topic she chose. Through her independent research, Aamya found that increases in the number of women being educated and entering the workforce had contributed to significant nationwide increases in IVF use. Keeping with IB protocols, Aamya received some guidance from a faculty advisor. Because the IB program explicitly prohibits teachers from proofreading students’ extended essays, the work that went into Aamya’s final 3,700-word submission was all her own. 

Grading of the extended essay, and the subject area exams, is done by IB authorities outside of the district who do not personally know the students who submitted the work. 

Aamya completed service work through the school’s Chinese Club and the Paterson Youth Council to fulfill the IB diploma’s required Creativity, Activity and Service (CAS) project. This requirement’s purpose is to have students extend their learning beyond the classroom and engage in service. Successful completion of the extended essay and the CAS project gave Aamya the chance to earn up to an additional three points toward her 24-point minimum for the IB diploma.

Aamya worked hard and so did the other IB diploma contenders in her class. A total of 23 students spent numerous hours taking multiple assessments, delving into long term research, and engaging in CAS projects. I am enormously proud of all of them.

The district will have IB diploma recipients in the future, and I look forward to congratulating them as we congratulate Aamya Perez today. 

But in the meantime, I know that it might be tempting for any of us to evaluate the merit of the IB program based on the number of IB diploma recipients in every class. But the reality is that it is an extremely difficult distinction to obtain. It was designed to be that way – for the reasons Aamya herself pointed out when she reflected on her experience as an IB student. 

“The IB program truly prepares you for the level of work one experiences on the college level,” she said. “The program has not only taught me to be open-minded to global issues but has allowed me to develop my interests outside of the classroom.”

A wise person once said, “The point of the journey is not to arrive.” 

I submit that the point of the IB program is not just the IB diploma, but the person who develops in striving to achieve it.