The International Baccalaureate school movement is growing in the United States. Supporters say the program's international focus and rigorous curriculum is one of the best ways to prepare students for globalization. "I.B. schools," as they're known, have long been popular in affluent areas of the country. But now, more school districts in poor, inner cities are experimenting with international baccalaureate programs. Tracy Samilton reports.
International baccalaureate schools began decades ago as a way to teach the globe-trotting children of the international diplomatic corps. Now, IB schools welcome all kinds of children. The program combines what are considered to be the best teaching techniques, a rigorous curriculum stressing writing and analysis, and an international perspective. The goal is to develop involved, articulate global citizens.
Bloomfield Hills is a wealthy suburb of Detroit, Michigan. The school district here has set up an International Baccalaureate program at Lone Pine Elementary. At IB elementary schools, subjects like math and reading are not taught separately. Subject areas are integrated, so lessons in "Mother Earth" class, for example, cover vocabulary, literature, history, and ecology. "We learned some words like environment, we learned how Indians, they didn't waste anything, and we learned about global warming," explains one ,5th-grader, flipping through his workbook. "I learned about Pangea, how, a long time ago the world was connected," adds another.
In addition to integrating subject areas, the program also breaks down the proverbial classroom wall. Teachers are required to compare notes and plan classes together. That's a "best practice" that IB schools adopted because it develops teachers' skills. Jean Ramseyer, head of programs at Lone Pine, says everything an IB school does should encourage children to think for themselves. There's still a place for rote learning of facts and figures. But she says children can develop sophisticated thinking skills at a surprisingly young age. "It's amazing. If we never ask kids to think, most of them don't."
Learning to think critically is rapidly becoming a crucial skill for people in the global economy, says school principal Mary McCuen. So is knowing how to work and play side by side with people who are not like yourself. "It's about helping children understand that where they are in place and time impacts their thinking and their viewpoint on the world," she explains. "And it does for everybody else in the world, too."
Most of the older international baccalaureate programs in the United States are in affluent areas like Bloomfield Hills. But more recently, troubled inner city schools are trying the approach to improve education for low-income children.
One of them is Whittier Academy, a middle school in Flint, Michigan, one of the poorest cities in the state. Principal Beverly Payne says many parents are taking their children out of the city school system because students are getting poor grades and test scores. She thinks her IB school will help stem the exodus of families from the district. "I believe if we have a program that's challenging with rigor and relevance, our parents are gonna stay in Flint."
Payne also thinks the international focus is the best model to prepare students for a shrinking world. Payne says she sees that in action everyday at her school. She recalls watching Flint students chatting on-line with students in other countries, "and someone was talking to someone in China and another to someone in Russia, and what we find out is they have similarities, and that's how we're going to make good leaders of tomorrow."
IB programs can and do succeed in economically distressed areas, according to Brad Richardson, with International Baccalaureate for North America. But he says educators need to understand that transforming a school into an international baccalaureate school is not an overnight fix. "Those success stories I could point out to you, you'd think wow, that's magic; no, no no, this has taken years for them to turn themselves around, but they've used the IB as a catalyst."
Other inner-city school districts across the country are considering adopting the IB program for one or more of their schools. Supporters say the International Baccalaureate program takes a big commitment from teachers, parents and administrators. But they say the program is one of the very best ways to prepare children for learning, living and working with people all over the world. For VOA News Now, I'm Tracy Samilton in Detroit.