Inside Bartow High, One of America’s Best High Schools

In central Florida, a tiny school with an ambitious curriculum has transformed its students’ lives—and landed at No. 2 on our ranking of America’s best high schools. Eliza Shapiro reports.

05.06.13 8:45 AM ET

It would be easy to mistake the International Baccalaureate School at Bartow High School for a typical suburban high school.

But Bartow High’s selective IB program—a small gifted-and-talented program that sits in a larger public high school—educates some of central Florida’s brightest and most ambitious students, and it’s anything but typical. This year the school ranked No. 2 on Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s ranking of America’s best high schools.

One recent afternoon, Bartow students spent an afternoon debating whether Santa Claus is real, using formal logic and philosophical principles they’d learned in their Theory of Knowledge class. Seniors pull all-nighters to finish their 4,000-word extended essays, a sort of mini thesis that represents the culmination of four years of study and research. This year’s crop of essays included a comparison of medication and psychotherapy for the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder, a study of Joseph Stalin’s legacy in Russian culture, and an analysis of whether the psychological effects of solitary confinement can be avoided through rehabilitation.

The school’s graduation and testing statistics—100 percent of its 226 students graduate in four years and are accepted to college; students took 551 Advanced Placement tests and 582 IB tests—are particularly impressive considering the school and county’s limited financial resources.

The average income for Bartow, Florida, is $45,000, a fraction of the $70,000 median income of all the schools that applied for Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s list. That means less money for private tutoring and test prep compared with the IB School’s wealthier (and less diverse) peers. Bartow High’s IB program is 56 percent white, 30 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic, and 23 percent Asian.

“The students truly are a melting pot,” says English teacher Sherri Delk.

“They’re my little microcosm of the world. They come from a variety of economic, cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds. The world could learn lessons from they way they work together and enjoy each other’s company.”

The school was founded in 1995 for just 64 students who wanted a challenge beyond the Advanced Placement classes and exams offered at local high schools. The IB curriculum, the school’s principal and founder, Edwin Vetter, explained, is uniquely challenging even compared to AP classes. Rather than choosing stand-alone elective courses, IB requires students to take classes in six fields as part of an integrated curriculum.

All IB students study English, science, and mathematics. They also become fluent in a second language, study individuals and societies (similar to social studies), and choose from electives including art, music, business management, and psychology.

Students also take a Theory of Knowledge class—something like a precursor to a freshman seminar in college—in which they read Bertrand Russell, Plato, and other major philosophers. Delk says the class “teaches students how to think, not what to think. It teaches them what knowing means.”

Chris Guise has his Theory of Knowledge class play games of soccer in which the student kicking the ball is blindfolded. The blindfolded student’s classmates have to use precise, descriptive language to help direct the sightless player around the field.

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Guise says his students are fantastic writers and less inhibited about sharing their writing than other high school students he’s taught. “They like to talk with their peers about their work,” he says, “They write about absolutely everything. They learn to use words to really explain the things that they know.”

Rounding out the curriculum is a demanding community-service requirement: freshmen and sophomores complete 20 hours of community service, while juniors and seniors complete 150 hours. Projects have included sponsoring literacy programs at schools in Haiti and mentoring elementary school students in Bartow.

Students play in intramural sports teams with their peers at Bartow High School, and participate in a variety of clubs, including the International and Epicurean clubs, where they learn about global culture and cuisine.

Gaining admission to the IB School at Bartow High is no small feat, and preparation starts even before middle school.

Eighth graders start attending information sessions months before they apply to learn about the strict requirements for an IB diploma. GPAs from sixth, seventh and eighth grade are considered, along with all test scores. Students are ranked according to GPA and exam score, and the top 70 or so students from a list of over 260 are accepted.

“We’re looking for high performers that want to continue to be high performers,” says Vetter, the principal. Each year, Vetter says, the IB program “raises the bar a little bit higher.”

“The problem with education is not that we aim too high and miss, it’s that we aim too low and hit,” he says, paraphrasing Michelangelo.

And the success of the IB program at Bartow High has added rigor to early childhood education across Polk County. “We’re building a pipeline of acceleration programs in our district, trying to expand to middle and elementary schools as well,” says David Lewis, the associate superintendent for learning at all Polk County schools.

An IB school based on the program at Bartow High recently opened in nearby high school in Haines City, Florida.

What’s it like to go to school at the best high school in America?

“We’re always busy in class,” says senior Danielle Yost. “Our teachers don’t believe in wasting time, so every single day is a productive day.” Yost still finds time to play intramural softball on top of her academic work.

She says she and her classmates typically do about four hours of homework a night, but but that the heavy workload only brings students closer. “We’re like a family in a larger school,” she says, referring to Bartow High as a whole. “We depend on each other, and we trust each other. We all understand what everyone else is going through.”

And all the hard work that Yost and her peers do does a tremendous job of preparing them for college, students and administrators agree.

“We have students who come back to visit and say, ‘College is easy!’” says Amanda Craven, the school’s guidance counselor. “They have to juggle six to seven college-level courses while they’re here,” she explains, “so they learn time management with grace and poise.”

“There are definitely moments here where the students ask me, ‘Am I going to survive this?’ But they always do,” Craven says.

“They’ve gone beyond wanting to do this because their mom or dad says they have to,” says Delk. “They’ve reached a level of personal responsibility. And while they have goals, they’re still kids. They love to be together. They’re like siblings.”

Delk, along with her students and fellow teachers, says the tremendous success of Bartow’s IB program can be easily replicated at other magnet schools across the country.

“We’re in Bartow, Florida, which is a lovely little town, but it’s a small town,” she says. “If we can be the kind of that we are here, than anyone can do it.”