By Marcy Stamper
With the Methow Valley School District nearing the April 1 deadline to apply to be an International Baccalaureate (IB) candidate, the program — and the district’s process of choosing it — have prompted a sharp debate about what is best for students.
Some people want the district to implement the program immediately because they believe its emphasis on connections between subjects will inspire kids. Others are strongly opposed to the change and accuse the district of a secretive process that hasn’t involved families.
The district has been exploring the IB program for about a year. Most teachers have attended IB workshops, and the district has mentioned it in school newsletters. But a meeting in February was the only formal opportunity for the public to learn about the program, and many parents say that wasn’t enough for them to understand what IB would mean for their children.
The positive response after the meeting affirmed the district’s decision to move forward with candidacy, said Methow Valley School District Superintendent Tom Venable. The meeting drew about 85 people, including most school staff.
In interviews since the meeting, some parents have said they like the fact that IB teaches how history, science and art are connected, and that it encourages students to get more involved.
But others have been vocal in their opposition, both around town and online.
Most concerns center on a few themes — IB has hidden costs and is too expensive; IB puts too much responsibility in the hands of kids, who aren’t equipped to know what they need to learn; and IB would impose the values of other cultures on local children. Many people question why a district that consistently receives top scores in state and national rankings is willing to risk its successful programs.
A petition opposing IB had gathered 99 signatures as of this week. “For years our kids have flourished under the current curriculum and program, sending multiple graduates every year to Ivy League schools and producing outstanding community members. Stop trying to fix what isn’t broken,” it reads in part.
Many people would not comment about IB without a guarantee of anonymity because they feel the issue has become contentious.
“Parents are angry — they think it’s been shoved in the back door,” said one woman who has several grandchildren in the schools.
Others were impressed by the program. “I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for our kids,” said Rocklynn Culp, who has two children in elementary school.
Reflecting on her own experience in school — from kindergarten through a master’s degree — Culp said, “For me, schooling was boring. Only a small portion made me want to learn more.”
Culp said the IB program has the ingredients to make school meaningful. “To me, that’s a gift to give kids — to get them excited about learning,” she said.
Many people said it has been hard to find unbiased information about IB. “I wanted to get an overview and to understand the successes and failures and pros and cons, but it seems to be a polarized subject,” said a parent with a child in elementary school.
As with anything in the Internet age, there is a vast amount of information to sift through — on the IB’s own website, in academic studies about IB pedagogy, and in assertions that IB is unconstitutional.
Candidacy is typically a two- or three-year process. It doesn’t commit the school district to the IB program, but does mean that teachers would work together to create lessons organized around IB themes, such as “who we are” and “how we express ourselves.” They would start to use them in their classes next year.
They would also teach IB’s student characteristics, which are similar to many of the concepts already part of the district’s Cub Constitution and Lion Pride.
Candidacy also commits the district to paying a one-time $4,000 fee for each school. The district is planning to apply for IB’s primary-years program (kindergarten through sixth grade) and middle-years programs (seventh through 10th grade).
When a school is ready, it asks for formal authorization as an IB school.
Many people are concerned that the published costs of the program — an annual fee of $8,000 for the primary-years program and $9,000 for the middle years, once schools are authorized — are misleading, and that the actual cost is many times higher.
Rob McElroy, executive administrator of teaching and learning for Bellingham Public Schools, who supervises principals at IB and traditional schools, said IB costs consist of the annual fee, an IB coordinator (often a part-time position), a foreign-language teacher and teacher training.
Venable estimated costs for IB at 2 percent of the district’s $7-million annual operating budget. Hiring a foreign-language teacher starting in kindergarten would be a new expense, but is not required until a school is officially authorized, he said.
In the Methow, most teachers have already attended workshops and visited IB schools. The IB teacher training was paid for by a $30,000 grant from the Public School Funding Alliance and a local support grant. The district would use money from its general fund for the candidacy fees, said Venable.
Less public process?
Venable acknowledged that, compared to other school matters — such as setting goals for the district or deciding what facilities need repairs, where the district held multiple meetings — the district had not provided as many formal opportunities for people to learn about IB and provide feedback.
Part of the reason was that teachers, who are responsible for developing IB units and teaching the concepts, wanted to be sure IB seemed like a sound program before introducing it to the community, said Venable.
IB is a nonprofit educational foundation with more than 3,700 schools in 147 countries. There is no official IB curriculum; instead, teachers at each school work together to create lessons..
“We won’t become an authorized IB school unless the community believes it’s good for children,” said Venable. “In no way was it our intention to be sneaky or backdoor or to hide anything.”
Same subjects, different approach
Under IB, there will be specific classes in reading and math, and the school district will still expand its programs in robotics, computer coding and engineering, said Venable.
But in an IB school, teachers expect students to apply basic skills in a more meaningful way, said McElroy. For example, when they have a writing assignment, they always have a particular audience, he said.
In history, students don’t simply memorize dates and people. In a unit on the American Revolution, they would also learn about other situations where people seek change, said McElroy.
While the program incorporates “inquiry,” the questions supplement the existing curriculum. “It’s not just what you want to learn or are curious about, or turning kids loose,” said McElroy.
By working together to create their units, teachers ensure that all classes cover the same material in each grade. This also avoids repetition, said McElroy.
In a small district, some people wondered what options they have if they don’t want their children in an IB school, or if the program proved unsuitable for some students.
Some didn’t understand that IB would affect classroom teaching in grades kindergarten through 10, thinking instead that “baccalaureate” only had to do with graduation.
The “international” in the name doesn’t sit well with everybody, either. Many have interpreted that to mean that students will learn that other countries and cultures are superior to ours, said one parent.
“What I’m learning, I’m not liking — it would be totally government-run,” said a woman with a grandchild in fourth grade.
For people familiar with the program, the February meeting was helpful because it included activities that showed what the classroom experience would be like. But for others, having only a brief time for questions and answers was maddening.
“It’s a good program in some ways — it prepares kids for an international world, which is what we live in now,” said a parent. But she was worried about kids who are not motivated. “A lot will say, ‘If I don’t have to, why should I?’”
“To me, the foundation of our country is freedom — to ask questions, inquire, be curious,” said Culp.