By Marcy Stamper
The Methow Valley School District is applying to join the International Baccalaureate (IB) network, meaning that starting this fall, classes from kindergarten through 10th grade will use an interdisciplinary approach and build on students’ questions about subjects.
Feedback after an informational meeting about the IB program held last week was “overwhelmingly positive,” said Methow Valley School District Superintendent Tom Venable two days after the meeting, as he explained the district’s decision to apply to become a candidate for the IB programs.
Some 85 attendees at the meeting, including most teachers in the district, watched a video prepared by the IB organization about the characteristics of their learners — which includes being thinkers, being knowledgeable and being risk-takers. They heard presentations by Venable and other district administrators about the process that led them to consider IB. Rob McElroy, executive director for special programs in Bellingham, was on hand to describe those schools’ experience and answer questions.
If a lot of questions about the suitability of IB had emerged after the meeting, the district would have asked whether moving forward with candidacy was the right choice, said Venable later in the week. The staff supports applying for candidacy, he said.
Meeting participants also had a chance to understand IB’s inquiry-based philosophy through an exercise where they proposed questions about an intentionally bewildering photo. IB units usually begin with this type of activity, said Anne Andersen, Methow Valley Elementary principal and a former principal at two IB schools. “It generates all kinds of questions kids really care about and want to know the answers to,” she told the group.
Some questions raised
During the brief question-and-answer period, attendees asked about the costs of IB, the advantages of formal approval versus adopting IB principles independently, and about IB’s approach to special education.
While the IB program doesn’t use a set curriculum, it offers guides to help teachers develop lessons, said McElroy. Being part of the larger organization can also provide greater sustainability for the program, since individuals may move on, he said.
The organization has no specific position on special education, with some schools integrating students into regular classes and others providing more individual instruction, said McElroy. All teachers — including special education, physical education and music teachers — receive IB training.
In looking at the IB program, one criterion was whether it is appropriate for all students, said Venable. “The answer was, clearly, ‘yes,’” he said. Part of each day is devoted to the cross-disciplinary lessons, in particular for science, history and art, but other classes focus specifically on reading, writing and math skills, he said.
At the IB elementary schools in Bellingham, about 10 percent of the families transferred their children to a traditional school, said McElroy. When asked about their objections, McElroy cited only cultural issues, saying that the emphasis on understanding other cultures made some parents question the patriotism of the program, and that others were concerned that it favored religions other than Christianity.
In an interview after the meeting, a parent who supports the IB program said school administrators may not realize that some people may perceive certain terminology — such as “creating global citizens” — as code words for an anti-American outlook.
Participants at the meeting were asked to jot down their questions on large sheets of paper. There was not time for many of them, including: How would IB be funded; How is IB different from what they are doing now; Is there something wrong with the current approach that has prompted the district to look at IB; And is it hard to hire new teachers because of the special training required?
Some participants were disappointed there was so little time for questions and had hoped for a more objective presentation. One parent said, “It was an annoying sales presentation.” Another said it was an expression of the staff’s enthusiasm but that the district may be “a little too Pollyanna-ish.”
“I basically support the whole program — it’s a great idea,” said Garry Dufresne, who has two children in the district. “I know the teachers can use all the support they can get. If there are materials and a structure for them, that’s a great deal,” he said.
Dufresne said he talked with Venable after the meeting and that Venable explained that it was his responsibility to make the decision about IB, based on goals that came out of a public process last year.
Classes in an IB school
The district plans to apply only for the primary-years (kindergarten through sixth grade) and middle-years programs (seventh through 10th grade). IB also has a diploma program, which is similar to advanced-placement classes and is probably better known.
The primary-years program covers six subject areas and transdisciplinary themes. The subject areas are familiar — language; mathematics; social studies; science; arts; and personal, social and physical education. The transdisciplinary themes include “who we are,” “how we express ourselves” and “sharing the planet.”
The middle-years program has eight subject groups, including language and literature, individuals and societies, math, arts, and design. It also emphasizes conceptual understanding and community service.
Several people asked about the diploma program. Others wondered whether districts that offer the IB diploma also offer a regular high school diploma. Venable said they have to study the diploma program further before making a decision.
Paying for IB
IB, a nonprofit organization with schools around the world, charges fixed annual fees — $4,000 per program to apply for candidacy, and about twice that once the district receives authorization, which usually takes about two years. Many other costs would be “repurposed” from existing expenditures, said Venable.
For example, the district has budgeted for an instructional coach, but would instead use that money to hire an IB coordinator. The coordinator does not necessarily need to be someone with previous experience in the IB model, said Venable. The district is not paying an instructional coach this year, since that post had been held by elementary principal Andersen.
Money that has been spent on professional development and teacher training would be redirected to IB workshops, said Venable.
One new expense would be a full-time salary for a foreign-language teacher for kindergarten through eighth grade, since world language — starting in kindergarten — is a central component of the IB program, although it is not required during the candidacy phase. The school district has not decided what language they would teach, said Venable.
IB has no actual curriculum and offers considerable autonomy for districts, said Venable. “The staff didn’t want a canned program,” but wanted to design their own units, he said.
During the candidacy phase, instructors will gradually incorporate IB in their teaching. Once underway, there will be more opportunities for the public to learn what the program actually looks like and to provide more feedback, said Venable.
Before coming to the Methow Valley two years ago, Venable was deputy superintendent of teaching and learning for the Bellingham Public Schools, where two of the 14 elementary schools were in IB’s primary-years program.
He had previously been principal at a Bellingham elementary school that considered applying to the IB program but instead decided to build it on its own. After two years of incorporating the concepts, the program lagged as staff became fatigued, said Venable. That school has now applied for candidacy, he said.
When he came to this district, Venable said he was curious about how to approach teaching and learning, but did not arrive thinking they would select IB. “But in 22 years in public education, I’ve not seen a better, more comprehensive model that focuses on the whole child, not just on academics or character attributes,” he said.
The deadline to apply for candidacy is April 1. For most schools, it takes two or three years to get to the point where they request formal authorization.
The district will be posting frequently asked questions about IB on its website at www.methow.org after the mid-winter break. Venable is also available to answer questions or meet with people. Call the district office at 996-9205 to reach him.