Aspen schools considering IB for all
Putting Aspen’s public schools on the same academic track is becoming a high priority for educational leaders, all while in the face of a global pandemic that has debilitated academic progress for students as they bounce between remote and in-class learning.
The district is taking a serious look at the International Baccalaureate program against a backdrop of academic regression, along with a recent audit critical of the district’s overall curriculum. Talk of putting all of the schools within the same the academic framework is not new, however, and was a hot topic of discussion during the November 2019 school board election.
District officials say the Aspen campus is ideal for the an IB World program that would begin at The Cottage preschool through 12th grade. The Maroon Creek Road campus, which includes the pre-school and the elementary, middle and high schools, is set up for aligned learning, whether it’s through IB or another program, administrators have said.
Currently the schools operate independent of each other academically, and results of a recent outside audit of the district’s academic structure recommended the implementation of a comprehensive curriculum management plan, with increased investment in and emphasis on English language arts and mathematics.
“It’s been a long time coming. I think this is a great thing for us to be considering,” said Assistant Superintendent Tharyn Mulberry, who had been the high school principal up until July 1. “I know that since I started five years ago, that we have seen the need for that coherent thread throughout the three schools.”
He added: “When I do the tour every year of a new staff member or a new parent that wants to come to the high school, when I was a principal, I would show them the three campuses and a say ‘what an advantage, all of the buildings are right next to one other.’ But often we would be far apart in what we were doing and what we are trying to achieve, so this will create that dialogue that will truly connect all of those campuses with the same language of learning.”
Mulberry was one of the presenters at a board of education Nov. 30 meeting where about an hour was spent discussing the IB Program and the efforts required to gain admission. Mulberry has experience teaching IB himself, and Aspen High School currently offers IB diplomas to juniors and seniors.
The International Baccalaureate program was founded in 1968 in Geneva, and has a “focus on teaching students to think critically and independently, and how to inquire with care and logic. The IB prepares students to succeed in a world where facts and fiction merge in the news, and where asking the right questions is a crucial skill that will allow them to flourish,” according to its website.
The program also provides educators a certain level of autonomy, Mulberry and Superintendent David Baugh explained, while they all operate under the greater IB philosophy of inquiry and critical thinking.
The process to gain district-wide acceptance into the IB Program can take two to four years, said Eileen Knapp, the coordinator of the high school’s IB program. The district currently is in what’s called the “consideration phase” of going all IB, she said.
“If we choose to move forward with the Primary Years Program in the elementary school and the Middle Years Program in the middle school and high school, then we would fill out an application,” she said.
Primary Years Program concentrates on students aged 3 to 12 and the Middle Years Program covers ages 11 to 16. The high school already utilizes the Diploma Program for ages 16 to 19.
The district could subsequently seek a candidacy status, and with acceptance it would be in direct contact with IB officials who also would monitor the district as it implements a practice model using the IB approach.
Just one K-12 campus in Colorado has the IB World School Distinction. That belongs to Discovery Canyon Campus in Colorado Springs, which is part of the Academy School District. Mulberry noted IB schools work together and share ideas, and the Aspen district would work with Discovery Canyon Camus if it gained IB World status.
“This would provide us that sort of compass that the audit said we’re kind of lacking right now,” Baugh said. “Right now a lot of teachers are working super-hard, and that will never change no matter what we do, but at least it becomes focused and becomes intentional. There are clear-cut ways of thinking about the work so we’re not inadvertently working against one another.”
The school board will eventually get involved if IB talks continue, and based on comments from Baugh and Mulberry, they are eager to take the IB route.
“I think it’s the gold standard for organizing a framework,” Baugh said. “It’s tried, it’s successful in Title 1 school districts (where children from low-income families account for 40% or more of enrollment), and it’s successful in school districts that look like Aspen. I want to be clear, it’s not the silver bullet, it’s not the easy answer, there’s still a world of work to be done. But from an organization principle, I think it’s the gold standard in education. I really do, and I think it’s the way to go.”
Said Mulberry: “I think this exactly what we need as a common framework.”
If IB is the route path the school district chooses, board member Jonathan Nickell said the community should be well informed about the program and also sold on it. That includes teachers and parents, he said.
“The way I see this is, you all are making a recommendation to the community that we should move forward on this journey, and here all the reasons why we think this is a good thing,” he said.
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Katie Fox said the work required to earn the certification was equal to that of earning a second master’s degree, all while holding down a full-time teaching position.