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Mindee Sharp found that when she started college this fall, she already had the critical thinking and study skills she needed.

Brent Mabey, a freshman at Brigham Young University, discovered writing lengthy papers was a snap.

Both credit the International Baccalaureate program at Hillcrest High for their easy transition to higher ed.

"It helped prepare me to do the big assignments that teachers give in college," said Sharp, also a BYU freshman. "I just take them all with a smile and say, 'I've already done that.' "

On Monday, Sharp and Mabey were among the 28 students recognized with an IB diploma at a special ceremony. They graduated from Hillcrest last spring, but the school did not receive the IB diplomas until this fall.

Since Salt Lake City's West High launched Utah's first IB program in 1984, the rigorous course of study has grown in the Beehive State to include six more high schools, one elementary charter (Channing Hall in Draper) and one middle school (Syracuse Junior High in Davis). Besides Hillcrest and West, Highland, Skyline, Clearfield, Bountiful and Provo high schools offer IB diplomas. More than 120 students earned IB diplomas last year. And many more took IB classes for college credits.

"I'm just excited that so many more kids have access to it," said Shannon Wilson, coordinator of the West High IB program, one of the largest internationally.

Last year, West had 55 students earn diplomas and 210 students taking year-end exams — the first time the school has topped 200. Only 70 of the 2,300 schools worldwide that offer the IB diploma have more than 200 students taking tests in a given year, Wilson said. Highland, another Salt Lake City school, was approved to offer IB in 2009, but enrollment hasn't dipped at West. Highland will offer its first IB diplomas to 2012 graduates.

But while the program has grown in Utah, it also has generated controversy in some conservative corners. In 2008, Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, accused the program of being "anti-American" and promoting the United Nations' agenda, a claim disputed by IB supporters. Dayton later apologized for not being more appropriate in her comments. Also, last year, Cherilyn Eagar, a former candidate for U.S. Senate, said IB doesn't represent Utah values and principles during a hearing on legislative proposals over who should control education in Utah. The bid to shift control of public education ultimately failed last year.

International Baccalaureate, which is run by a nonprofit based in Switzerland, has been around since 1968 and is now offered in 141 countries. The curriculum emphasizes critical and creative thinking skills and preparing students for college and careers in a global economy. To earn an IB diploma, students must take six IB courses in at least five different subject areas (an arts class is optional), pass year-end tests, write a final, extended essay and complete 150 hours of "creativity, action and service" in their schools and communities. Students are encouraged to apply their knowledge across disciplines.

"I think it's the best college preparation in town," said Chris Krueger, Skyline's IB coordinator, noting he has taught concurrent enrollment and Advanced Placement courses, too. "It asks you to analyze and show different points of view rather than just regurgitate a bunch of facts."

In the United States, college students who earned an IB diploma in high school are more likely to graduate with a bachelor's degree than their peers. Among students who took IB exams in 2000 and 2001, 88 percent graduated from college in six years or less compared with 58 percent of all college students, according to an IB analysis of data from the National Student Clearinghouse, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and the National Center for Education Statistics.

Mabey plans to complete a double major in math and statistics in four years. He's already several semesters ahead of his classmates. BYU accepted 84 credits of Mabey's IB and Advanced Placement coursework — a record for a Hillcrest High graduate. He thinks his IB work also helped him score his full-tuition scholarship.

Even though his first academic love is math, Mabey liked that the IB program had a "holistic" approach, requiring students to take higher-level courses in subjects beyond those in which they already excel. Students study math, science, social studies, a second language, literature, art and a required "theory of knowledge" course that integrates what they are learning across subjects. For his creativity, action and service requirement, Mabey did volunteer work as a member of the National Honors Society, led the swim team as captain and played the piano.

"One of the most important things I figured out with this was just being able to manage time," Mabey said. "So long as [students] are willing to put a little effort into actually doing everything they need to do, it's definitely worth it."

International Baccalaureatein Utah

P This week, three of Utah's International Baccalaureate (IB) programs award IB diplomas to 2011 graduates. Schools with IB programs will be holding informational meetings for interested students and parents in January. For details, check the school's online calendar or call the main office and ask for the IB coordinator.

IB graduations scheduled

Hillcrest High • Jan. 2, 7 p.m., 7350 S. 900 East, Midvale.

Skyline High • Jan. 3, 2:30 p.m., 3251 E. 3760 South, Millcreek.

West High • Jan. 3, 4 p.m., 241 N. 300 West, Salt Lake City.