School district ponders IB for all |

School district ponders IB for all

John Colson
The new classrooms at Aspen Elementary School, empty over the holiday break, may one day fill up with youngsters enrolled in the International Baccalaureate Organization's program for primary grade students. The academically rigorous IB courses are currently offered only at the high school level. (Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times)

Aspen, Co ColoradoASPEN The Aspen School District is looking into expanding its International Baccalaureate educational programs into the lower grades. It currently is available only to high school students.But it’s not that the intensive and demanding classes of the high school program will be translated directly to the lower grades, school officials said last week. “There’s no such thing as an IB program for middle and elementary schools,” said Karen Zohar, the high school’s IB coordinator, .”Sure, it’s academically rigorous,” she said of the middle and elementary school programs. But, she added, they are “less quantified … more philosophical” in nature.Superintendent Diana Sirko and a task force of about 20 teachers, administrators and parents have begun exploring the idea of using the International Baccalaureate Organization’s Primary Years Program (PYP) in the elementary school and Middle Years Program (MYP) in the middle school. Those involved expect to spend the next few months gathering information before they take the matter to parents and the community at large.

“No decisions have been made,” Sirko said. “We’ve just gotten started.” She said the task force’s job will be “just figuring out what each program has to offer.”The task force will have its second meeting in early January, at which Zohar will give a presentation about the high school’s experience with the program, and a subcommittee will present information from a conference on the PYP/MYP programs held last summer in Keystone.The organization behind the IB phenomenon was founded in 1968 and now works with nearly 2,000 schools in 124 countries around the world, according to its website, Its headquarters are in Geneva, Switzerland, with offices in Great Britain, China, North and South America, Africa and Australia.There are three levels of programs – PYP for students between the ages of 3 and 12, MYP for students from 11 to 16, and the Diploma Program (DP) for students from 16 to 19. The overlap in years, explained Zohar, is to allow for differences in educational systems in the various countries; the educational philosophy is geared toward instilling an international perspective in students, among other goals.The DP is essentially an advanced studies program for students who might be labeled “gifted and talented,” and who are aiming toward specialized degrees in college. Students take special IB classes in languages, social studies, math, science and the arts.At Aspen High School, the diploma program has an open enrollment policy, which permits any junior or senior to give it a try. Most schools do not offer open enrollment but preselect students for the programs, Zohar said.

Approximately 60 percent of the Aspen High School student body takes at least one IB class in one subject or another, she said. About 12 to 15 percent of the school is enrolled as “diploma candidates,” meaning they take a full roster of IB classes and receive an IB diploma upon passing the courses, Zohar said. The IB diploma is said to be helpful in gaining admission to top colleges.But the PYP and MYP are more basic and general in nature, according to Zohar and the website.The website describes the PYP as “a commitment to structured, purposeful inquiry as the leading vehicle for learning.” The online information refers to “six transdisciplinary themes of global significance [that] provide the framework for exploration and study.” Those six themes include: “who we are; where we are in place and time; how we express ourselves; how the world works; how we organize ourselves; sharing the planet.”Zohar said she has heard concerns on both sides about whether the PYP/MYP programs would be useful or harmful in the Aspen schools.Some are worried the IB-type philosophy “could potentially go against the Aspen philosophy of educating thewhole child” and could lead to unhealthy academic pressures on young students, she said.

Others feel that “the world is changing” and Aspen’s schools need to modernize and upgrade their educational programs to keep up and to graduate students capable of competing in the global economy, she added.There also are concerns about the costs involved, Zohar said. The school paid roughly $100,000 in startup and training costs to get the IB program going at the high school. Plus, the district pays roughly $8,000 per year in fees to the International Baccalaureate Organization, $10,000 to $15,000 in training costs for teachers, and half of Zohar’s pay to act as the program’s coordinator.The costs for the PYP/MYP programs would be perhaps half as much as the startup of the high school program, she estimated.However, a group of interested parents last summer put up approximately $35,000 to help the district begin exploring the possibilities, starting with sending district representatives to the Keystone conference. The task force will start visiting Colorado schools that have the programs in place, perhaps attend more conferences, and investigate the situation as comprehensively as possible, Sirko said.John Colson’s e-mail address is

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