Berkeley High School juniors Akeia Bryant and Latyra Gibbs are hunkered down in front of a computer, creating a PowerPoint presentation for their Spanish class.

At a table behind them, a group of girls eat lunch over open books and laptops while Jordan Olheiser strums a ukulele, also preparing for a presentation.

Across the room, Kramer Jance stands in front of a row of students in rocking chairs, quizzing them on American history.

Although the room is filled with students, with its computers, microwave and bright-colored furniture, it resembles a teachers' lounge more than a classroom. Known as the Scholars Lair, it is a retreat for the first students in the school's International Baccalaureate program, a place for them to hang out before and after school and during their 25-minute lunch period.

"These students are very excited to be the first group in an IB program in Berkeley County," said principal Kim McLaren.

After three years of preparation and training, Berkeley was accepted in March as an IB World School, and this school year started offering courses toward the International Baccalaureate Diploma to 26 students in the class of 2013.

"It's a major accomplishment for a school in a semi-rural area to become IB certified," said Doug Burges, a history teacher and the school's IB coordinator.

In preparation for the program, Berkeley started a Scholars Academy two years ago with 60 students who were accepted after consideration of teacher recommendations, standardized test scores, grades, an extended writing sample and an interview.

Those students took a two-year courseload that included four years of Spanish, three years of English, pre-calculus, government and economics, global studies and biology.

McLaren said there was natural attrition.

"Any pre-IB program starts with double the number of students," she said. "Some may choose to go the (advanced placement) path instead of the IB path. And if they are interested in taking band all four years or want a military focus, there's not room in the schedule for that."

Those who completed the prerequisites entered the IB program this year.

"They call themselves guinea pigs," Burges said. "I call them pioneers."

IB diplomas

The IB Diploma Program is a two-year effort overseen by the International Baccalaureate Organization, whose mission is to "develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect."

The students take English, math (which includes both statistics and calculus), history of Americas, chemistry and Spanish. They can choose between psychology and art.

To earn an IB diploma, they also must complete a Theory of Knowledge course and, at the end of their senior year, write a 4,000-word essay that shows college-level research, writing skills and creativity.

The students also participate in a Creativity, Action, Service (CAS) component, which includes three hours a week in the arts, sports or physical activity, and volunteer work or service projects.

At the end of their senior year, they also will take IB exams, which can earn them college credit.

If they fulfill all of the requirements, they will receive an IB diploma in addition to their South Carolina High School Diploma.

"We wanted to offer this program because it is an internationally recognized diploma," McLaren said.

IB vs. AP

Berkeley's 1,395 students also can earn college credit through its 10 Advanced Placement classes and four dual-credit classes, which are taught by Trident Technical College professors at Berkeley High. AP programs are more widely known in the United States than IB programs, which are starting to gain recognition.

McLaren said the IB program differs from AP classes in that "it helps students get a more worldwide focus, and the way they're taught and assessed is very different. AP exams have many multiple-choice questions. With IB assessments, a student may get a page of 20 essay questions and have to figure out what he knows well and can show."

AP courses also allow students to take only the subjects they are strong in, while IB coursework includes all classes. IB students can take AP exams in courses that correspond.

"IB is designed to make students well-rounded," said student Lauren Hicks. "I thought, if I'm going to do all the work for AP, then I might as well push myself and go IB."

Avoiding isolation

Because the IB classes last two years, the students are on a more traditional bell schedule than the rest of the student body, which follows a modified block schedule. As a result, the IB students change classes separately, only overlapping at lunch time.

"We didn't want to be isolationist, but the format makes it almost impossible not to have it that way," Burges said.

The students are together for every class and split for the art/psychology elective.

"We have to make fun between ourselves," Hicks said.

They said they sometimes hear comments from non-IB students, although it's out of curiosity, not malice.

"People wonder about our work level," Hicks said. "Sometimes we get, 'I feel sorry for you,' because of all the extra work."

But Akeia Bryant says it's been manageable so far.

"It's not as overwhelming as I thought it would be," she said.

Teachers plan together to make sure homework, projects and tests aren't piled on at the same time. They also encourage outside activities such as school clubs, sports and community activities, which go toward the CAS requirement. The school's IB students are cheerleaders, soccer players and golf team members.

"We want to make sure IB is not all-consuming." Burges says. "To be successful, students have to learn to plan ahead, but that's a life skill. It's not overwhelming, but at the same time, it's not easy."

The extra work, said Kramer Jance, "might be torture now, but it will be worth it in the long run because of the opportunities it will bring."

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713.