Students get a deeper knowledge

NEWPORT BEACH — The campus stood nearly empty after dark, save for a few students trickling into an older classroom in a far corner of the school.

About 30 juniors took their seats around tables. Sets from past plays and the old masters' artworks were privy to the conversation — a debate on what makes art.

Photographs of Velázquez's "The Maids of Honour," and Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain" were shown before questions were posed.

"What is art supposed to represent?" asked teacher Joe Robinson about the Velázquez. "Is art real or is what art is trying to reflect real?"

Those questions were debated Monday as part of Newport Harbor High School's International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma program, an internationally recognized curriculum in nearly 140 countries that's centered on critical thinking. It is a challenging alternative to honors and Advanced Placement coursework.

Harbor, which began its program in the fall, is the first campus in Newport-Mesa to offer an IB diploma, and one of 16 in Orange County.

"As a school, we have always been about critical thinking and about going into depth on topics," said Principal Michael Vossen. "The IB programs allow you to do that."

The centerpiece of the program is the Theory of Knowledge class, which on a recent evening touched on everything from expressionist painter Jackson Pollock to current pop singer Rebecca Black. Debate was engaging but there was little consensus.

All semester long, the students in their twice-weekly meetings learn, debate and question the four ways knowledge is acquired — language, senses, emotions and logic — and expressed in math, history and science. The year-long class will continue in the semester of senior year.

"We look at each and ask, 'How valid a source of knowledge are they?'" Robinson said. "What are their weak points? What are their strong points? How valid is history? It's a step back and it's looking at all the courses together."

Program enhances AP courses

The rigorous two-year program with six courses, including the Theory of Knowledge class, culminates in IB exams and a 4,000-word research essay submitted straight to the IB organization.

Diploma candidates also journal and reflect on their completed community service and physical activity, said Robinson, who also serves as Harbor's IB coordinator.

The high school didn't create all new IB classes, but built them into existing AP courses, Robinson said.

Students can also just take individual courses to earn a certificate for that subject, he said.

Harbor has about 30 IB diploma students and about 30 more just taking the classes, Robinson said.

An IB diploma can go a long way at colleges. Some, including the University of California, will count it as a full year of college credit.

Providing post-high school success was a reason principal Vossen wanted to start the program.

Starting college a sophomore was part of why junior Scott Beaver, 17, joined IB. He also wanted a challenge.

Nearly a year into the program, the junior said he's found the classes to be more abstract, self-directed and, unlike other classes, really focused on learning.

"You almost learn different ways to learn," he said.

The program is a lot of work, but it's worth it if you put in the effort, Scott said.

None of it is busy work either, added junior Christine Bonadonna, 17.

"It's not about memorization, but about critical thinking," she said.

Better chance for college admissions

Getting the program off the ground was no easy feat for Robinson, who pulled out a thick binder that contained all the IB application materials.

Robinson said the process was a two-year effort, requiring about 30 teachers to become IB certified.

The program, which only serves juniors now, is expanding as students move up, new students come in and about 10 more teachers get IB certification, Robinson said.

Robinson also said he hopes the program will give students better chances for admission to top universities.

"It can't help but increase our status," he said. "Some of the most elite schools in Orange County are IB schools … nationwide, it's rather special to be an IB school."

But like all new programs, the first year has been going well but it has been a learning experience figuring out scheduling and the curriculum, Vossen said.

"We're learning as we're going along and we're just going to continue to do that," he said.

A teacher since 1969 who has taught 18 subjects in three departments, Robinson's experiences over the last three years have made him take another look at what education should be and can be. IB was started to expand students' horizons, but Robinson said it has also changed his.

"The Theory of Knowledge class and this program," he said, "is the most exciting thing I've done in education."

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World