Teaching History at America’s #1 High School

“WE JUST DON’T TREAT THE KIDS like high school kids, we treat them like college kids, and they respond. That is one of the things that I think has helped the school to be successful over the last few years,” says Robert Uhelski, the head of the history department at the International Academy in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. In 2003, Newsweek ranked the academy number one in the nation.[1] The secret to its success is a combination of high expectations set by both teachers and administrators, rigorous coursework, and sound teaching practices. In their history courses, students are challenged to explore and weigh evidence, to defend their ideas, and to create projects with real-life applications.

The International Academy participates in the diploma program of the International Baccalaureate Organization based in Geneva, Switzerland. Offering an internationally recognized course of study and diploma, the IBO, a non-profit foundation, was established to serve students who moved to different countries during the course of their education. Since 1968, IB programs have provided students with an international education while meeting national and state educational standards. Taught in English, Spanish or French, the IB curriculum is currently offered in 116 different countries at the primary, middle, and secondary levels. The diploma is recognized and held in high regard by over a thousand universities worldwide.

The International Academy is a four-year public school, a so-called “school of choice,” which draws students from thirteen districts in Oakland County. Its principal, Bert Okma, proposed founding the school in 1992. With advice on the use of materials and teacher training from the IBO regional office for North America, the Academy opened four years later on the site of a former elementary school. While it is a public school, over half of IB schools in the United States and other countries are private.

The International Academy offers its students the opportunity to earn both high school and IB diplomas. All teachers have been certified by the state of Michigan. Like other high schools, the Academy administers the standardized tests of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP), but preparing students for the MEAP tests is not the focus of instruction. Nevertheless, the scores of the Academy’s students on the tests far exceed state averages. On the 2003 MEAP test in social studies, eighty-eight percent of them met or exceeded Michigan standards whereas just over twenty-five percent of students statewide did.[2] In its School Report Card, the Michigan Department of Education, considering factors such as student achievement and graduation rates, gave the Academy an ‘A.’

Student applicants to the International Academy are selected by lottery. They take non-binding math and foreign language placement tests and diagnostic tests. About eighty-eight percent of students enrolled go on to earn the IB diploma.[3] With a waiting list of 450 students, the Academy is now pursuing the possibility of opening a satellite campus.[4]

Teacher training and expertise, the extent to which course materials are interesting, and IB standards largely determine what is taught in history classes at the International Academy, according to Mr. Uhelski. In ninth-grade world studies, students learn to do research, discuss, and debate issues through a project-based curriculum. They plan mock trips to developing countries and consider ways to provide economic assistance to local peoples while respecting their cultures and traditions. A heavy emphasis is placed on reading and writing at all grade levels. Ninth graders write position papers on issues in current events, and their exams include essay questions.

When they face the document-based questions on the IB exam and historical research and writing in college, the Academy’s students and graduates are well-prepared because their work with primary sources began during their first year of high school. To earn the IB diploma, students must compose a 4,000-word essay based upon original research.

In keeping with its international orientation, the Academy offers a tenth-grade American studies course which includes Latin American and Canadian history. The course is taught around a central theme: the struggle for human rights. Student understanding is assessed in part through projects. Students are involved in Settler’s Diary and Civil War Database projects, for example. While they are enrolled in American studies, they also take a course in American literature.

While all courses starting with the ninth grade are taught with IB standards in mind, the actual IB history courses are offered to students in the eleventh and twelfth grades. These courses emphasize the twentieth century, particularly the first and second world wars. In addition to textbooks, students read a variety of materials, such as Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy and Anthony Wood’s The Russian Revolution. They learn how to do research in university libraries, examine secondary sources for bias, and develop theses. Uhelski and other history teachers at the Academy present them with maps and primary sources, including political cartoons and artifacts, to analyze and interpret. Creative projects, like the making of a 1920s newspaper using desktop publishing, continue to engage them. While they are studying World War II, the students do oral histories. At the end of their senior year, they take the IB exams in which they are asked to write essays on selected topics from twentieth-century world history and an essay using primary documents.

Four full years of social studies and a foreign language are required of all students at the International Academy. In addition to history, students study microeconomics, philosophy, and government. On average, they spend about three hours doing homework every day. “We are very into the subjects. The teachers come to classrooms with enthusiasm,” explained Emily Levine, a student at the International Academy.

Teachers at the Academy receive ongoing support and training from the IBO through workshops and an online curriculum center. Online conferences on various topics of interest to educators, such as concepts of communities, are offered to them free of charge. They are involved in Model United Nations, Global Trade Mission, Investment, and Diversity clubs which give their students the opportunity to put the concepts which they are learning in class into practice. The International Baccalaureate program encourages civic responsibility by requiring all students to complete 150 hours of community service. Students volunteer for Building with Books, Habitat for Humanity, local food banks, and animal shelters.

The academy’s student body is diverse. Oakland County has the highest percentage of foreign-born residents in Michigan, and an estimated fifty-three percent of IA students have at least one parent who was born in another country. Not all students at the school come from wealthy backgrounds, but since there is an established correlation between student achievement and household income, the fact that Oakland County is one of the wealthiest in the nation may, along with instructional strategies and goal setting, contribute to the students’ success. According to the 2000 Census, the median household income in Oakland County was $61,907.[5] The facilities of the International Academy are noticeably modest, however. While there is a computer lab, most social studies classrooms have only one or two computers.

With their global perspective and foreign language requirements, International Baccalaureate schools are on the cutting edge of multicultural education. Students are encouraged to adopt an international perspective and think comparatively. The history department’s emphasis on writing at the International Academy is clearly a vital factor in student achievement. Students are learning and mastering forms of writing which are particular to history as a discipline. The work of the IA teachers shows that high expectations and good teaching of a well-structured and varied curriculum produce results.


1.� Jay Mathews, “The 100 Best High Schools in America,” Newsweek (2 June 2003): 48–54. The academy’s number-one ranking was established by dividing the number of students taking Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams by the number of graduating seniors.

2.� Wisely, John, “MEAP scores fall in 3 R’s,” The Detroit News (6 November 2003): 1. <http://www.detnews.com/2003/schools/0311/06/a01-317989.htm>.

3.� Vandenabeele, Janet, “International Academy works to prove its worth,” The Detroit News (28 March 2003) 3. <http://www.detnews.com/2003/oakland/0304/02/d04-121315.htm>.

4.� Mask, Teresa, “Bloomfield Hills school plans another campus,” Detroit Free Press (3 March 2004): 1. <http://www.freep.com/news/education/expan3_20040303.htm>.

5.� U.S. Bureau of the Census, Census 2000.



By: Julie A. Taylor



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