Peter McAllister pulled a box of matches from his pocket.

"The head of the match is red," he said, holding one up for the nine juniors in his West Islip High School classroom.

The teacher touched it to his nose.

"It's cool," he testified.

He struck it and the flame flared out. The head of the match, he noted, was now black and warm.

McAllister grinned. "Is this the same match?"

McAllister, 61, a former Citibank executive now in his eighth year of teaching, was introducing his class to a new course that aims to help students answer the question: "How do you know what you know?"

The course, "Theory of Knowledge," is a signature feature of the International Baccalaureate diploma program. The program is a demanding, two-year series of advanced courses, exams and required essays that is rapidly attracting admirers in thousands of high schools worldwide - along with a smaller number of skeptics critical of the program's costs.

More districts signing on

West Islip and Long Beach have just opened IB programs in their high schools, raising the number of participating districts on Long Island to seven. Massapequa and Sag Harbor are considering high school programs of their own.

Island Park is exploring the possibility of a baccalaureate program for its middle school. So is St. Peter's by-the-Sea Episcopal Day School in Bay Shore.

"People want a rigorous program that prepares students for the world they're going to live in," said David Weiss, an assistant superintendent in Commack, which runs the Island's biggest IB program.

Students often note that baccalaureate courses also provide an edge in the race for college admissions. For that, many are willing to shoulder the extra workload, which typically begins with required summer readings in advance of their junior year of high school.

At Long Beach High School, 11th-grader Casey Harsh was tallying homework assignments after her first day of IB classes: Outline a chapter in an American history textbook; review a novel about World War II; excerpt quotes from another novel about missionaries to the Congo; memorize 200 technical terms in biology.

The list went on. Still, Harsh said she understood she and her classmates would have to work extra hard to prepare for IB exams administered in May. The reason: Many schools in the U.S. Sunbelt open in August, so IB students there enjoy nearly a month's head start.

"I always look for a little challenge," said the 16-year-old.

Program began overseas

The International Baccalaureate program was established in 1968, largely for the sons and daughters of American diplomats and business executives posted overseas. Since then, the program has expanded to 718 public and private high schools in the United States and 2,171 worldwide. Students can opt either for individual IB courses or for a full two-year program leading to an IB diploma.

The IB organization is headquartered in Geneva, with a U.S. office in Bethesda, Md.

For American diploma candidates, requirements include two-year courses in English and "History of the Americas," which covers both the history of the United States and its postwar foreign relations. Other required courses are foreign language, math and science.

Students also write many papers, including a 4,000-word "extended essay" similar to a college thesis. At Commack High School, recent essays covered such topics as policies the United States might use to conserve oil and gas, and the influence of Viennese society on the art of Gustav Klimt.

To maintain grading standards, students' papers and tests are scored by teachers or college professors in other parts of the United States and abroad. Thus, a videotaped oral exam in Spanish might be dispatched to Buenos Aires for grading, while a math paper is sent to Hong Kong.

A hefty price

All this comes at a price. For a typical high school, total start-up costs for an IB program can easily run to more than $70,000. That includes $19,000 in application fees and a $10,000 annual membership fee, plus costs of teacher training, books and materials.

Students pay a one-time registration fee of $135, plus $92 for each exam. That's somewhat higher than fees charged by the larger Advanced Placement program, which is sponsored by the College Board in Manhattan, and also offers courses that are often awarded college credit. Advanced Placement charges $87 per exam and no registration fee.

Michael Cohen, a former Brentwood school superintendent, says he considered a baccalaureate program for that district, but decided against it, largely because of cost.

"AP and IB is like Macy's and Lord & Taylor," Cohen quipped. "Same merchandise, but at a different store, and with a little more cachet at a slightly higher price."

IB enthusiasts reject that, saying special features of the baccalaureate program amply justify the expense. Among advantages most often cited: friendships forged in pursuing IB studies with like-minded students, together with the writing skills developed in completing extended essays.

"Mine was around 30 pages," recalled Kate Macina, 19, a Northport High School graduate, now a sophomore at New York University. "Students are able to come to each other for help, for guidance, for edits. It was one of the best decisions I made in high school. It definitely prepared me for college."

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