International education on the rise

When Carol Brash began looking for an elementary school for her son William she took the task seriously. She compiled a list of 12 candidate schools and visited many, and the ones she couldn’t visit she called and quizzed the staff on a variety of questions. Despite her research, Brash wasn’t finding a school that fit the bill. “I was feeling very frustrated because none of the schools had the things I wanted,” explains Brash. “A lot of the extras were gone from the schools, and I don’t see things like art and gym as ‘extras.’” Brash also wanted her son to experience a rigorous curriculum, to begin learning a foreign language, and to have plenty of recess time.

After expressing her desires during one of her school visits an assistant principal asked if Elizabeth Hall International Elementary School in North Minneapolis was on her list of possibilities. It wasn’t. “I didn’t have it on my radar because of the location, but when I heard from another principal that it was a really great school, I went to check it out.” What Brash found was a fully authorized International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme (IB-PYP) that promised to make every child a citizen of the world — in the last place in the world she expected it. “I fell in love with it,” says Brash. “The kids were actively engaged in what was happening in the classroom, and the IB curriculum had everything I was looking for.”

What is International Baccalaureate?

The International Baccalaureate began in 1968 in Switzerland with a simple goal: to create a curriculum and diploma that would be recognized by universities around the world. The program was directed at high school-aged internationally mobile students (the children of diplomats, for example) in need of a consistent, rigorous educational plan regardless of how often they moved, or where in the world they moved to. The Diploma Programme for high schoolers eventually led to the creation of the Middle Years Programme and the Primary Years Programme in 1994 and 1997, respectively, which allowed the nonprofit International Baccalaureate to offer their curriculum from age 3 to graduation.

Beyond the same curriculum from school to school, what makes IB different from the average elementary, middle, or high school? According to Marlys Peters-Melius, the state’s coordinator of International Baccalaureate programs, IB schools highlight global awareness and critical thinking. “These schools use interdisciplinary teaching so kids can see relationships between the various subject areas they’re studying,” says Peters-Melius. “They are understanding not only their own culture better but world cultures, and it gives them a greater appreciation for people around the world.” Diane Palmer, the Minneapolis Public School District’s IB coordinator, uses an example of a science class discussing the impact of rivers on society. “In that case, the students would look at it not just from a local perspective, but how rivers have impacted people in all different parts of the world. And it would involve social studies, art, science — all different subjects.” Palmer says parents are often impressed by the unique nature and broad scope of the IB program. “Parents like the values that the program nurtures, the mandatory world language element, the high level of professional development and teacher commitment, and the internationalism perspective,” explains Palmer. “When they observe an IB class they say, ‘Wow, this is what I want for my child. This is what I’ve been looking for.’”

Traditionally the IB program was offered in private schools, but more and more public schools are embracing the system. Today there are more than a thousand IB schools in North America, and Minnesota boasts 12 Diploma Programme high schools, three Middle Years Programme middle schools, and six Primary Years Programme elementary schools with at least 13 other schools currently moving through the certification process. IB appeals to public schools thanks to its consistently high rate of success; 42 of Newsweek magazine’s top 100 public high schools in the country for 2007 were IB schools.

IB-PYP in Mpls

That level of success was what helped bring the Primary Years Programme to Elizabeth Hall International Elementary School. The process began in 2004 when, along with Whittier International Elementary School in Minneapolis, the two schools applied for and received a three-year, $3.1 million federal grant to turn both Hall and Whittier into magnet schools. “One of the magnet grant goals is to increase enrollment at schools that are struggling, reduce racial isolation, and revitalize schools that are struggling academically by putting in a program of rigor that will attract families,” says Palmer. “Within the magnet grant you indicate what the school’s theme or program will be, so the district decided it wanted PYP so that any child in Minneapolis could choose to have a baccalaureate education.”

Applying to become an IB school is an intensive process that typically takes between three to five years. In between filling out a series of applications, schools are subject to a study to assess whether IB is feasible for the school. Teachers also go through official IB training, which includes writing their own curriculum that lines up with the IB mission. Eventually the International Baccalaureate Organization comes back to the school to perform an authorization visit that includes interviewing students and families, observing classrooms, and assessing how integrated the IB system is throughout all levels of the school. Once a school is approved (Whittier and Elizabeth Hall became fully authorized last winter, making the 2007–2008 school year their first with IB status) the International Baccalaureate Organization comes back every three years for a reauthorization visit in order to ensure the school is maintaining a consistent IB standard. None of this is cheap, of course: being an official IB school requires an annual fee of around $45,000 per school.

Palmer says teachers and administrators at Elizabeth Hall put in a lot of extra work to meet the strict IB standards, a shift that was tough for some. “When you start anything new you have a range of reactions, and the program has been a lot of hard work for teachers,” explains Palmer. “Most say they would never teach any other way, but some did choose to leave rather than move to IB.” Parents, however, are choosing IB in large numbers: Elizabeth Hall’s enrollment has gone from 292 last year to at least 390 this year. “What’s even more telling is the fact that both Elizabeth Hall and Whittier are full for kindergarten, which historically has never been the case,” says Palmer.

This fall, William began first grade at Elizabeth Hall and Brash helped him prepare for the new world of reading, writing, and Mandarin language classes he’d experience at school. She’s hoping he finds such enjoyment in the IB curriculum that he chooses to follow it through the Middle Years and Diploma Programmes in Minneapolis. “I just can’t say enough good things about it,” says Brash. “It’s my hope that more folks will discover IB and that the public school system will continue to support its growth.”

Monica Wright is Minnesota Parent’s assistant editor.

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