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How we embraced the IB Learner Profile, and access and equity for all (Part II)

By Marion Halberg

DBHS2The first part of our story is all about the value of a well-trained staff community. In this second part, we look at how we continue to grow the IB Diploma Programme (DP) at our school, and how we engage our school community.

A couple of years ago when the IB opened up the DP theory of knowledge (TOK) course to students beyond diploma candidates, we jumped on board. We opened the course to all interested students here at Dobbs Ferry High School (DFHS), our small public high school just north of New York City. Two years ago, we added DP Spanish Ab Initio (a beginner level course) because we saw a need for students entering our district without the background knowledge to participate in our current Language B offerings (for students with some previous experience of learning the language). We also saw an opportunity to allow former English language learners and special education students who may have been exempt from language learning in middle and early high school to participate. This decision allowed a transfer student (moving from another school) to access the full diploma. This would previously have been possible. We have already seen an increased demand and anticipate adding more sections in the future. The expansion of arts subjects also makes the DP accessible to many more students. Our art and film course also has open enrollment, and many students take these courses with absolutely no previous experience, although some may be gifted artists.

We began celebrating the IB Learner Profile very openly. Throughout the year, a student-of-the-month ceremony celebrates students in different subject groups who, based on teacher endorsements, embody some aspect of the IB Learner Profile. We use the language of the learner profile in other award ceremonies, at commencement ceremonies, and as often as we can. Many teachers in ninth and tenth grades begin their opening days of the school year with activities that ask students to think about how they connect to the learner profile.

IB Learner Profile

IB Learner Profile: IB Learners are Inquirers, Knowledgeable, Thinkers, Communicators, Principled, Open-Minded, Caring, Risk-Takers, Balanced, Reflective

Engaging the community was a crucial piece on the road to becoming an all IB World School. When our current head of school and new superintendent arrived in 2011, we were at a crossroads. Although we had already set into motion the idea of “IB for all” and were saying it publicly, we hadn’t effectively communicated this to the community at large. Parents were concerned because we would speak publicly about the IB Diploma Programme for all students but we didn’t explain the way we would support students who had special needs or those who were perceived as not academically ready for the rigours of the DP. People really thought that we were just going to put all students in DP classes and let them sink or swim. Nothing was further from the truth, but we didn’t effectively communicate how we were going to transition to an all-DP school and how we were going to make access possible for all students.

On the other extreme, parents of students who were typical full diploma students at that time were asking why we didn’t offer AP courses (which they were more familiar with), and how was attending an IB high school going to help their children? We learned a lot from that. And the way we responded made all the difference. At that point, we could have moved forward or possibly lost hold of our goal to enhance and improve our IBness. So we listened to our community and encouraged them to ask us their questions. Our superintendent engaged community members in book chats around Tony Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap. What came out of those, and a very well-attended and hard-looking community forum at the end of that year, was the agreement in the community about what we wanted for our school and for our students. And when we looked at the list of the things we wanted, we realized, all of us, that the IB Diploma Programme was the perfect fit to provide DFHS students with the skills and attributes of a 21st-Century learner. But we wanted to provide this education in a principled and caring way.

And as an additional result of this inquiry and reflection, we also began to move toward adopting the Middle Years Programme (MYP) in grades 6 to 10. In October 2016, we will have our authorization visit for MYP. Obviously, we have strengthened our connection to IB,and we truly will be an all-IB high school (and middle school). Engaging as both inquirers and communicators made this happen. It was difficult but very important.

Some important challenges to keep in mind:

Don’t just focus on the scores. Previously, most of our students going for the full diploma were easy to identify– we were usually sure they would be able to meet the demands academically. Of course, scores are important, and community members are often focused on scores.  Now, that’s not always the case. Sometimes we have students who go for the full Diploma and don’t get it. But what those students got in the process will serve them ten-fold in the future. And, sometimes, taking two or three IB courses is taking a risk for a student. We are willing to take the risk to offer IB courses and the opportunity to be a Diploma Candidate to all of our students no matter the results. This helps our students become risk takers, too, in the best sense of the term.

We began asking our graduates how their IB experiences had served them in freshman year of college. We began looking at assessments and worked during shared collaborative time to understand where our students did well and where they had gaps. We mapped backward to 10th and 9th grades so that by the time students were in their 11th-grade courses, it wasn’t such a great difference from the kind of work/assessments that they had already been experiencing. Being reflective across the curriculum, across the school, and with our alumni has helped us learn about the strengths and weaknesses of our work.

Another thing that helps us to reflect on our practice is the visits we receive from other schools hoping to understand IB better as they explore becoming authorized schools. Although we were the first, now our county has many IB schools. We receive frequent requests to host visitors from all over the New York Metro area from schools that are seeking information and first-hand knowledge of our Diploma Programme. Each time we receive visitors, we have another opportunity to reflect and communicate our beliefs and experiences. We also host a roundtable each year as part of the regional organization to which we belong (GIBS). These roundtables are a terrific way to share best practices with regional colleagues. We always learn something from these collaborations.

But reflection is ongoing. We are again looking back at this journey but also looking forward. We’re all thinkers, too. Where do we want to be in the coming school year, next year, five years (when we will have our next five-year self study)? We already some directions we want to take. We’d like to expand our CAS program and encourage more students (if not all) students to participate. We know there’s research that shows that students who are on the receiving end of community service gain even more when they participate in service to others. We want to make that happen and recognize that access and equity in CAS will be community building in many ways.

In addition to celebrating the Learner Profile for students, we plan to begin celebrating staff who also embody attributes of the profile. We want teachers and staff to know that we value their caring for their students and colleagues, their open-mindedness to try new things, their risk-taking even when sometimes outcomes aren’t what were anticipated. We don’t want our teachers to be reduced to scores and evaluations. They are whole people educating whole people.

And throughout our 18-year IB journey, there have been many colleagues and experiences that have helped to move us forward. It’s not just one moment in time but rather different initiatives along the way (like aligning math 6-12 which led to the addition of Math Studies in 11th and 12th grades) and a previous self-study evaluation that cited us and moved us to offer most of our courses over two years that have all contributed to where we are today. And we will continue to evolve.

As we move toward full authorization of our MYP, we are very excited about how being an all-IB school has become a reality for Dobbs Ferry High School. There are some links and contact information below. Please feel free to reach out. We love to share our story!

Here’s a link to our story:

Here’s a link to our Head of School’s Blog: “On Principal with John Falino”

Marion Halberg is the Diploma Programme Coordinator and K-12 English Language Learning Coordinator at Dobbs Ferry Union Free School District, New York, USA. @MegHalberg


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