International Baccalaureate program a target

Last modified: 2/29/2012 12:00:00 AM
The Merrimack Valley School District has been implementing the International Baccalaureate program for several years, but opposition to the program is suddenly gaining steam and opponents could make their voices heard at the district meeting next week.

Established in Geneva in 1968, the I.B. program emphasizes the characteristics students should develop - such as being principled, open-minded, caring, risk-taking and reflective - while also mastering academic material such as math, history and science. But in some communities, it's drawn skepticism because of its connection with the United Nations.

"The I.B. program frightens me," said Heidi Martin, a Salisbury resident with two children in the district. "It frightens me terribly."

Martin, 46, is a member of the Salisbury Education Committee, whose mission is to "broaden communications" between the residents and the district and to "ensure quality education at affordable costs."

Citing cost and national sovereignty, Martin and others said they hope to persuade voters next week to ask school officials reconsider their decision to implement the program.

"They never talked about the cost," Salisbury Selectman Ken Ross-Raymond said of officials with the Merrimack Valley School District. "They never talked about the fact the program was developed in Switzerland and some of our tax dollars are now going to Switzerland for this program."

"For lack of a better word, it's a subsidiary of the U.N.," said Loudon Selectman Steve Ives.

In a "Myths vs. Facts" section on its website, the program said its original purpose was to "facilitate the international mobility of students preparing for university."

"To me, I.B. is the U.N.," said Martin, who estimated she's spent more than 120 hours researching the program. "They share the same address, the same contact information and they share the same building."

Worldwide, the program works with 3,342 schools in 141 countries to offer programs to about 997,000 students, according to its website. In the United States, there are 1,315 I.B. schools.

The program does have a more regimented curriculum for high school juniors and seniors, said Christine Barry, assistant superintendent in Merrimack Valley, but for the time being Merrimack Valley is only using the program for students from first to 10th grade. Those students will continue to learn the material in the district's curriculum, which is tied to standards set by the state.

"I.B. explicitly teaches citizenship and characters in citizenship even at the early levels," said Barry. The students will still need to take statewide standardized tests.

But Barry said the program will help teachers "improve their practices and provide the education for the kids that they'll need in the 21st century."

Martin said she worries that the district will eventually alter its curriculum to accommodate I.B. She said she's purchased textbooks and workbooks that include inflammatory, anti-American material.

"What sanctions can we impose on these nations that are using too many resources that are polluting the world?" she said was a question in one of the books she'd obtained.

"It is so highly inflammatory," she said.

Fully implementing the program seems at odds with the district's insistence that it will not deviate from its current materials, she said.

"This program could probably be very dangerous," Martin said.

School officials are preparing to address a wide range of concerns about I.B. next week, including the program's cost.

The district pays $9,500 for each school whose teachers are being trained to teach according to the I.B. method, or about $58,000 annually. The cost per school will decline after an initial period is over and officials from the program visit the district and see if individual schools have met the program's instructional standards.

Two schools are on the verge of that final approval, Barry said - Salisbury and Webster elementary schools.

With the annual fee comes access to teaching resources and training, Barry said. The cost is covered by federal grants that the district has received for about a decade, she said.

Some of those who are wary of the program, including Ross-Raymond, said they have heard it can be significantly more expensive to use I.B. than the school officials have said - up to $1 million, he said.

But Barry said such estimates are based on false premises and worst-case scenarios that create highly exaggerated costs.

The district spends a total of about $210,000 annually on professional development, Barry said, all funded by federal grants. Of that amount, about $58,000 is spent preparing teachers to use the I.B. method, which emphasizes student engagement and minimizes lecturing at students.

Several schools in the district have been identified as in need of improvement because of poor test performance, and the district needs to change its methods, Barry said. The I.B. program is "just good teaching," Barry said, and will improve instruction in the district.

"We could do it on our own," she said. "It would take longer and it would probably cost more."

Officials said they weren't sure what specific maneuvers they expect next week on the floor of school meeting. There is no article on the warrant that would specifically prohibit the use of the program in the classroom, but Ross-Raymond said residents could deduct the amount the district spends on I.B. from the bottom line of the operating budget. They could also try to vote down a warrant article that approves the district's long-range improvement plan, which involves I.B.

Martin said she's less concerned about the budget than making sure the district acts in the best interests of the children.

"For my family, I don't think it's going to work, but you need to look at the program's website for your own family and you need to decide for your own family," she said she tells other parents.

"I.B. does not speak to the values of my family," she said.

(Molly A.K. Connors can be reached at 369-3319 or mconnors@cmonitor.com.)




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