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When Julie VanDerwater took over as principal at Rochester’s Joseph C. Wilson Magnet School in 2016, there were only about 30 students in the school’s prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB) program, and the vast majority were White.

That was at a school where about 90 percent of the enrollment is students of color.

“It was segregation,” she said. “These kids were living in their own school within a school. They had separate classes. We started a plan to open access to all students and get rid of this IB/not IB mentality.

“We entered with the mindset of IB for all students.”

VanDerwater and her team developed a plan to increase enrollment in IB courses, particularly among students of color.

They started by offering an option for students to earn certificates in individual IB courses, without committing to the full diploma-bearing program.

As they increased enrollment, they recognized the need to provide support so students could not only enroll but also succeed in IB coursework.

So the school adopted the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program, which offers students additional academic and social emotional support, while also guiding them in thinking about college and careers. In the program, students learn skills such as time management and how to communicate their concerns when they feel under pressure.

“They were capable and had potential,” VanDerwater said. “But we recognized that due to a lot of the social issues they were dealing with at home, they were kind of falling down all around us.”

The team at Wilson is also determined to not let students give up when it’s tough.

“We really are heels in the ground telling them ‘You’re going to do this. You’re going to beat the odds,’” she said. “I see the potential in kids and am not going to let them give up on themselves.”

Students also have another big incentive. The school has an agreement with the University of Rochester that students who graduate with the IB diploma receive a full tuition scholarship.

Several years later, enrollment in IB courses has just about doubled, with 61 students participating in the program this year

The demographics have also essentially flipped from when VanDerwater started as principal. Now, four out of five students are students of color.

Wilson also tops the state in the share of Black students enrolled in AP/IB courses. The school was in the top ten schools with at least 50 Black students enrolled in 9-12 grades for share of Black students enrolled in AP/IB.

How to make opportunities like those at Wilson available district-wide is a key priority for Superintendent Terry Dade, who took the helm at the start of the school year.

He believes offering more advanced coursework and support programs like AVID to younger students will help set them on the path to taking more rigorous classes in high school.

“We can do a better job getting students into advanced coursework earlier to allow them to see the success they can achieve if given the opportunity,” he said. “What makes sense for an 8th grader or 9th grader to take for them to see that they can do it and get them on a track to more advanced courses? And what support do they need to be successful?”