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Educators, Parents Eager for an Edge Opt for IB Classes In Grade Schools

Randolph Elementary School Principal Renee Bostick talks to International Baccalaureate program fifth-graders.
Randolph Elementary School Principal Renee Bostick talks to International Baccalaureate program fifth-graders. (Photos By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

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By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 17, 2006

Hunting for the best education for her three young children, Traci Pietra fretted about low test scores at her Arlington neighborhood school. Then the principal told her about Randolph Elementary's affiliation with one of the most prestigious and rapidly growing brands in education: IB.

International Baccalaureate is best known for a high school diploma program geared to the university-bound academic elite. But Pietra and her husband, Peter, were sold on the lesser-known elementary version of IB. Both were attracted to the IB emphasis on global understanding, Pietra said, and added: "He was like, 'Our kids are going to an Ivy League school, and we need an education that's going to get them on the right track.' "

The Primary Years Programme, designed by the Geneva-based International Baccalaureate Organization, is becoming a hit in the United States with the Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary set. It's now in 72 U.S. schools, up from six in 2000. Driving the growth is a desire among education officials to ramp up the rigor, the earlier the better.

The program seeks to mold students, from preschool age on, into "transdisciplinary" and bilingual scholars who can deliver a major academic project by fifth grade and then move into deeper studies in secondary schools and beyond. (IB middle schools also exist.) Critics wonder whether it's all a bit much for a student demographic that still receives scratch-and-sniff stickers on written work.

"We initially hear from parents that they're a little worried about the amount of work," said Sandra Coyle, a regional marketing and communications manager for the IB organization. "But they do realize the way it expands their children's minds and teaches them how to learn and how it helps them to manage their schedules. We like to say that IB prepares kids for success in college but also for success in life."

So far, Randolph Elementary and the private Washington International and Rock Creek International schools in the District are the only ones in the region with authorized IB primary programs. But efforts to join them are underway in several local school systems. Prince William County is training staff for an IB rollout in eight elementary schools. Plans are made for five such schools in the District and three in Anne Arundel County. And an IB elementary awaits authorization in Montgomery County.

For some schools with a sizable number of students from low-income families, IB's cachet helps lure -- and retain -- children whose parents are better off. At Ellis Elementary School, one of the chosen few in Prince William to get the IB program, transfer requests are trickling in. "We've already fielded a few phone calls, and most of them were from higher socioeconomic areas," Principal Jewell Moore said. At her school, 40 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged.

IB elementary classes differ from the ordinary in several ways. Subjects as varied as economics and nonfiction writing can be taught in a single IB class. When students begin learning new material, they are asked to think of numerous questions that get posted on the chalkboard under a title such as "What we want to find out," giving classes an investigative feel.

"In the past, when students asked questions, they just mimicked mine," said Randolph science teacher Judith Kendall. "With IB, they have to think about what they know and what they really don't know."

Teachers at IB schools, who receive special training, say the elementary program will help ensure that students will be able to compete globally and learn from an early age about the importance of other cultures. They also say that the programs can help students pass standardized state exams, especially in the many elementary schools serving low-income areas that face the threat of sanctions under the No Child Left Behind law if test scores fall short.

A Washington Post review of nearly all authorized IB public elementary schools in the country found that three-fourths made adequate yearly progress under the federal law, based on the last academic year's test results. Further, more than two-thirds of the IB schools designated for federal Title I anti-poverty funding made adequate yearly progress.

The IB primary program uses an approach that teaches students several disciplines in classes organized by six units: "Who we are," "Where we are in place and time," "How we express ourselves," "How the world works," "How we organize ourselves" and "Sharing the planet." Unlike the high school diploma program, there are no year-end exams, but fifth-graders complete a culminating "exhibition" that can be a performance, a community service project or another endeavor in which portfolios are turned in periodically. Students also must study a foreign language.

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