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International School 1

Missoula International School eighth-graders Eden Maxwell, left, and Evelyn Kiely speak during an assembly on Thursday to announce the school's status as the first in Montana authorized to deliver the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme. The program focuses on intercultural understanding and critical thinking.

The International Baccalaureate, also known as IB, is an academic program that has been gaining popularity in schools throughout Missoula, the country and the world.

The Swiss-founded program aims to create “global citizens" through a curriculum that emphasizes international cooperation and understanding.

Over the last 10 years, the nonprofit academic programs have been spreading to private and public Missoula schools. In this model, students learn to draw connections among different subjects, make their own discoveries, and learn about the world.

This year, teachers and administrators at Washington Middle School are embarking on the three-year process to become an IB school for middle schoolers, and through it, to develop pathways for foreign language programs.

“What I think we’re trying to get away from is just spoon-feeding kids information and then making them take a paper-pencil test,” said Washington principal Kacie Laslovich.

The International Baccalaureate program started as a curriculum to prepare high school students for post-secondary education through rigorous coursework and standards. It has evolved since then into four programs for different age groups from pre-kindergarten to 12th-grade, including one for middle schoolers.

In 2009, the Missoula International School obtained authorization for it's Primary Years Program, making it the first school in Montana to become an IB school, as well as the flagship school for the Northwest.

Missoula County Public Schools followed in 2012 with Hellgate High School, and later Big Sky High School and Lewis and Clark Elementary. Franklin Elementary is in the final stages of authorization.

Overall, the IB framework and curriculum emphasize the use of inquiry-based learning to develop critical thinking skills.

“It’s about setting the stage for the kids, addressing what the standard is going to be, telling them what the end goal is, and then giving them materials and guided instruction to allow them to self-discover,” Laslovich said.

Through the authorization process, schools train teachers to foster self-directed instruction in the classroom.

In a middle school classroom, students are challenged to draw connections among all subject areas and participate in formal and informal learning assessments. They’re also required to learn a foreign language, and teachers are trained to integrate global points of view to help students broaden their view of the world and understanding of others.

Laslovich said the foreign language IB requirement will be one of the main focuses while they develop the program at Washington.

Paxson Elementary School — known for its dual language Spanish program — is one of the feeder schools for Washington. Some parents recently expressed concerns that the founding cohort of students who went through the Spanish language immersion program at Paxson are overqualified for Spanish classes offered at the middle school level.

Students from Rattlesnake and Lewis and Clark Elementary Schools also feed into Washington. Although Lewis and Clark students are exposed to some Spanish instruction through Lewis and Clark's IB program, Rattlesnake students are not.

To better transition students when they enter middle school, Laslovich said administrators are working on changing the model of language immersion versus language acquisition at Washington.

“That’s going to be our role in this as a middle school,” she said. “We’re going to focus more on grammar skills, verb conjugation, social communication ... so we’re using that sixth-grade year as a transition year.”

Next year, Washington will start using a new evaluation, the Assessment of the Performance toward Proficiency in Languages (AAPPL), to measure a student's proficiency in the language and place them in the correct courses.

“If we’re talking about getting kids into Spanish I, II, III, and getting kids to be able to take the AP Spanish exam, immersion is not necessarily going to help them with that exam,” Laslovich said of the Advanced Placement test.

Foreign language acquisition is only one of eight core classes required for middle school students in the IB program. The other core classes include literature, individuals and societies, math, science, physical and health education, arts, and design.

Earlier this year, eight Washington teachers underwent IB-specific training in each of the subject areas. Colleen Windell, a teacher and part-time IB coordinator at Washington, also drafted policies and procedures and helped staff write units of study, which the school will review next year.

Administrators at Washington also developed a three-year roll-out plan for the “community project” that students complete as part of the IB focus on service learning. For the project, students select and research an issue or topic that affects a larger community, in addition to participating in other service learning projects.

Additionally, teachers and administrators are working together to identify ways the curriculum overlaps and spot opportunities for interdisciplinary units.

Right now, Laslovich said teachers at Washington are in the brainstorming phase. There are a lot of opportunities to integrate Spanish instruction with arts and STEM classes, or science, technology, engineering and math. True to the IB approach, the focus will be on helping kids see the connection.

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