Webster, Salisbury first elementary schools in state to become IB members
Miniature flags from around the world line the hallways of Webster Elementary School, and a map marking different time zones greets visitors from the wall opposite the front door. To visitors, these serve as noticeable clues that they’re entering an International Baccalaureate World School.
But these international decorations are far from the only markers of IB at the school. In Nancy Dobe’s fifth-grade classroom, the walls are covered with questions – such as “Why do we enjoy books?” and “What do books mean?” – written on colorful paper, representing the inquiry method that defines IB. Questions for a government-themed lesson cover the blackboard, and pictures of students acting out key IB phrases, such as tolerance, cooperation and creativity, decorate another wall.
Dobe and the other teachers have been working for several years to meet IB standards. Earlier this school year, those efforts were realized when Webster Elementary School officially became a member of the IB primary years program. It joins another Merrimack Valley District school, Salisbury Elementary School, also verified this September, as the first official IB primary schools in New Hampshire. Bedford High School and the private New Hampton School are the only other IB schools in the state.
“It just fit our teaching style,” said Sandra Davis, principal at both elementary schools. “There are a lot of veteran teachers at these two schools, and I think that they were looking for a challenge.”
The schools join a total of 341 IB primary schools across the country. The program emphasizes a method of teaching through inquiry and developing lessons around a set of themes. It also focuses on “international mindedness,” a concept that has drawn fire from critics. It does not impose a curriculum, but rather emphasizes a “whole-child framework,” which was attractive to the district, said Christine Barry, assistant superintendent at the Merrimack Valley School District.
“It wasn’t just academics, it included the social, emotional, physical well-being also,” Barry said. “We liked the part that we could keep our own curriculum, keep our own books.”
The district is striving to make each school an IB school, and Boscawen, Loudon and Penacook elementary schools have certification visits lined up this week and next. The middle and high schools are hoping for visits in April, but preparing for the program at the high school is more complicated. Unlike the primary and middle school programs, IB prescribes a curriculum for 11th and 12th grades.
IB is connected to the United Nations and was first developed in the 1960s to give internationally mobile students a consistent curriculum, according to its website. But its ties to the U.N. have faded, and the application process for U.S. schools stays within the country. A small but vocal group of Salisbury residents were critical of the program this year, but implementation in Webster went smoothly, Davis said.
Webster and Salisbury elementary schools have been acting like IB schools for about three years. Teachers at Webster Elementary School said they’ve noticed a difference in students, who are asking more thoughtful questions. The change is especially noticeable in the second and third grades, because those students have been experiencing IB since their formal schooling began.
The teachers must create six planners that focus on over-arching themes, which serve as lesson plans in science and social studies for the course of the year. One period of the day is dedicated to IB, when the teachers use the planners, but most teachers incorporate the inquiry-based learning throughout the day.
One of those themes, for example, is “How we organize ourselves.” Dobe, the fifth-grade teacher, is using that theme to teach her government unit. Rather than lecturing her students on governments and social organization, she created a desert island simulation activity that will encourage them to come to conclusions on their own about how government works. The students are split into groups and must work together through challenges to escape the desert island. They have to write a daily reflection on how their group made decisions in a journal.
The students argue sometimes, but have found their own ways to get around disagreements.
“Sometimes we have a little democracy, and we vote,” said 11-year-old Logan Cassin.
Not all of the students have connected the activity to decision-making that relates to governments yet, but that will come as the lesson goes on, Dobe said.
The students do know one thing: They’re enjoying the IB period. “It’s really fun, I’m always looking forward to it,” said 10-year-old Devin Thibeault.
Transitioning to the approach was difficult and requires a lot of work, said second-grade teacher Jessica McWhinnie.
“It was intimidating and stressful,” she said. “But every year I feel more and more comfortable with it. You get to teach the planner again, so you can change things or redo the things that went really well.”
McWhinnie can see the results of the inquiry-based learning in her students. Earlier this year her students read a Time for Kids article about bringing lunches to school. They got upset because the article quoted teachers and parents, but not students, and they had a lot to say about the article.
“I didn’t think they would take it to that level. I was really surprised with how intense they got about it,” she said. “You can’t be a passive learner with IB, you have to be involved. All kids have opinions.”
But not all community members are convinced that IB is right for their schools. Last year, several members of the Salisbury Education Committee expressed opposition related to the program’s international ties and concerns about its costs. IB is primarily funded through a grant, with a portion of one teacher mentor’s salary coming from the district’s budget. It costs about $9,000 per year per school to be a program member.
Ken Ross-Raymond, a member of the committee and chairman of the Salisbury Board of Selectmen, said he thinks IB focuses too much on behavior and attitudes and not enough on academics. In addition, some documents given out by the school district explaining the program talked about encouraging students to protest and promoting activism, he said. It seemed like the school board members hadn’t fully researched the program before presenting it, he said.
He worries that if the school later decides IB isn’t working, the students, not the teachers, will suffer.
“At this point I have kind of given up that battle. . . . We’ll have to wait and see what the program does, and it may take five, 10 years from now to have a good idea of how the program has worked in our schools,” he said.
There is no way to measure the success of the program, and the program does not promise to increase test scores. The state’s new Common Core standards, however, have inquiry and best practices strategies in them, which are in line with IB, Davis said. Both schools have consistently scored well above the state average in proficiency across subjects for years.
The results of IB may not be measurable, but they are noticeable, Davis and the teachers at Webster Elementary say. Officially becoming an IB World school this September is just one step in the schools’ journey to equip students to be world thinkers who put a stake in their own education.
“We had just as many unmotivated kids as anybody did,” Davis said. “But I say that the level of kids taking charge of their own education has just sort of skyrocketed.”