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Question Arise Over IB Program

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By Claire Walla

Don’t know much about IB?

That was the premise of last week’s International Baccalaureate (IB) information session, held Wednesday, January 19 in the Pierson Middle/High School auditorium.

IB, which is already used widely in Europe, is gaining popularity in the United States where it is replacing or being offered alongside AP programs and is seen by many administrators as offering students a wider world view.

According to Sag Harbor School District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto, administrators had decided over the summer to closely examine the IB program and how it might fit in to the academic curriculum at Pierson. While Dr. Gratto told those at last week’s meeting this is something that is “still in the exploratory phase,” he said administrators are working with potential plans to implement IB beginning in fall 2012.

A group of about 50 parents, teachers and administrators gathered to learn about the program from Robin Calitri, former principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, which has the longest history of IB on Long Island. Calitri also held an information session for parents the following day.

Calitri touted IB for challenging both teachers and students to think outside the box.

“IB values global or international mindedness,” he said, adding that while IB students are given assessment tests throughout their time in the program, one of the capstones for IB diploma students is a 4,000-word essay, which forces students to use critical thinking skills rather than fact-based recall methods to test their knowledge.

Ok, but how does it all work?

For the Sag Harbor School District, which is considering introducing an IB diploma program for eleventh and twelfth graders, participating students will take a total of six IB courses, revolving around what’s known as “the hexagon.”

Students will choose study topics that stem from six main subject areas — language, individuals and societies, mathematics and computer science, the arts, environmental sciences and second language. In addition, these courses are bolstered by the program’s three core requirements: Creativity Action Service (CAS), which encourages learning outside the classroom; the 4,000-word extended essay; and a vaguely titled course called Theory of Knowledge (TOK).

Some parents at the meeting expressed concern over the cost of a program that will potentially affect a select few.

Calitri was very frank: “[IB] can cost taxpayers anywhere from $30,000 to $200,000 a year,” he said.

While the Sag Harbor School District should not expect to see costs reach anywhere near the six-figure range — these estimates apply to schools implementing IB at all levels of education, from elementary school up — IB does have a price tag.

In addition to the $7,000 application fee and the fees associated with joining the worldwide IB network, it costs about $1,500 to $2,000 for Pierson to send each teacher to IB teachers training conferences. (This year the district set aside all of its professional development funds for this purpose.)

Parent Tom Gleason shared his doubts about the program. “I worry about the percent of students who will actually be in IB courses,” he said, adding that the school has already invested money in an AP curriculum. “To me, I’d rather put money into raising all students to a higher level.”

According to Pierson Principal Jeff Nichols, IB would function similar to the way AP already does. He estimated there are typically eight to 14 students who take more than five AP courses at Pierson during the course of their studies, a work load similar to that required of those pursuing an IB diploma. And just as certain students already take individual AP courses, those same students would be able to take single IB courses for certificate credit.

At eight to 14, the number of potential diploma students represents roughly 20 to 30 percent. But, Nichols added, “Just like we did with AP, we’ll grow that number.”

Pierson math teacher Jim Kinnier asked about the more practical implications for teachers, questions concerning the content matter of an IB class versus an AP class, as well as the instruction time necessary for IB students. Standard level IB classes require 150 hours of instruction, while higher-level classes require 240.

To the former, Calitri was vague. He said it’s up to the teacher and the school to choose the specific content of the course.

“The [administrators] will design the program for the school based on the strengths of its faculty,” he explained.

And to the latter, he said 40-minute class periods, like those at Pierson, are standard.

“Schools just have to figure out a way to get 150 hours of instruction,” he added, which can be difficult if schools lose teaching time to snow days or teachers conferences, or if individual students miss class periods. In these instances at Rockville Centre, Calitri continued, sometimes teachers scheduled additional instruction for after-school hours.

School board member Chris Tice asked Calitri how sophomores who currently take AP classes but would not be able to partake in the IB program until their junior year factor into the equation.

Calitri spoke well of AP classes, saying “Sometimes AP is used as a set-up for students on-track to do IB.”

In a later interview, Dr. Gratto mentioned that AP would most likely still be an option for students, should plans for the IB program come to fruition.