By Marcy Stamper
It would be a rare status for a small, rural school to be a member of the worldwide International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which combines subjects like English, history and science and emphasizes foreign languages — but the Methow Valley School District is close to applying for candidacy for the program.
After a year of exploring the program, visiting other IB schools, attending training and incorporating the concepts in classes, teachers and administrators have decided to take the next step in March, after an opportunity for community feedback early next month.
The school would be applying for two IB programs — the primary-years program for first through sixth grade and a middle-years program for seventh through 10th grade. They are not contemplating the diploma program at this time, said Methow Valley School District Superintendent Tom Venable.
By doing considerable research and getting training even before applying for candidacy, the school district is ahead of where most schools are in the IB investigative process, said Venable.
Typically schools do not send teachers for training until after they have been accepted as a candidate school. “We felt it was important to send the staff to training to learn the philosophy and how it aligns with our practice — that was built into the exploration process,” said Venable. “Our hope is that by spending more time evaluating the framework, it’s a decision we’ll be pleased with and that will serve students well into the future.”
To be approved for candidacy, the district must show that the schools’ mission and vision are consistent with the IB philosophy and demonstrate that the district has involved everyone who would be affected, including families and the community, said Venable.
Some parents have already visited other IB schools or have had experiences with IB programs in other districts, said Venable.
The IB organization sees its mission as more than its curriculums and certificate programs. Its mission statement includes the following: “At our heart we are motivated by a mission to create a better world through education.”
IB units are organized around themes, such as who we are, how we express ourselves, and how the world works, according to Methow Valley Elementary Principal Anne Andersen, who has been principal at two other IB schools.
IB also requires a world-language program, starting in kindergarten. The district has not yet decided whether the language would be Spanish or Mandarin, said Venable.
Students also have a role in shaping their education — they are encouraged to propose questions about a subject from different points of view, said Andersen.
The IB framework helps teachers organize lessons so that students understand how subject areas are connected and relevant to their lives, said Liberty Bell math teacher Paul Gitchos, who attended an IB training last summer.
It is usually a two- to three-year process for schools to move from candidacy to full authorization, said Venable. Although staff would have to demonstrate that they are using the interdisciplinary lessons, during the candidacy phase teachers would not be expected to use the thematic units in all their classes. They would most likely add two or three units each year, said Venable.
The faculty would spend time over the summer designing the first interdisciplinary lessons to teach next year, he said. “It’s a tremendous amount of work — particularly to develop the units of integrated study — so we want to be sure everyone understands how much work and commitment it is,” said Venable.
As a candidate school, the district would be assigned an IB coordinator to advise the staff and facilitate the process.
Once they believe they are ready — most likely after two or three years — district administrators would request a formal evaluation. “It doesn’t mean we have to be perfect, but we have to have shown significant progress,” said Venable.
IB is a nonprofit educational foundation with more than 3,700 schools in 147 countries. More than 2,400 schools in the U.S. use the program, although only 29 of those are in Washington, the majority of which offer just the diploma program. Only three of the Washington schools are in the primary program and six in the middle years.
The diploma program, which started in 1968, is the oldest. The primary- and middle-years programs were developed in the 1990s.
While many IB schools are small, few are rural, said Venable, who said the international connections could keep the district from becoming too isolated.
The IB teacher training has been paid for by a $30,000 grant from the Public School Funding Alliance and a local support grant. If the district elects to apply for candidacy, it will allocate money from its general fund.
The fee to become a candidate school is $4,000 per program. Annual fees for IB schools are $8,000 to $9,000 for each program.
The Independent Learning Center will continue to partner with Big Picture Schools, which also emphasizes interdisciplinary study but incorporates internships and hands-on learning, said Venable.