International Baccalaureate program could ‘bring the world’ to Telluride Mountain School
Amy M. Peters, Watch Contributor Mar 31, 2016
Karen Walker, the head of Telluride Mountain School, wears gray wool slacks and a collared shirt, reading specs perched atop her head. She is sitting next to Andy Shoff, the Associate Head of School and Head of the Intermediate and Upper Schools. They are speaking enthusiastically about the plans underway at Telluride Mountain School (TMS) to adopt a two-year International Baccalaureate (IB) program for grades 11 and 12. The program will be implemented for juniors beginning in the fall of 2017.
Currently, TMS is working with an IB consultant to prepare its application. Until that is approved, TMS is considered a “candidate school.” The entire process takes two to three years to complete; current freshmen at TMS would be the first to graduate with an IB diploma.
“We submit this huge, hairy 75 page document,” Walker said. “It’s like an accreditation. Next year (representatives from IB) come and approve us. They need to see us in action even though we won’t be an IB school yet.”
Qualifying for the IB is a lengthy process, and the school is moving as quickly as the program will allow.
“There’s a lot of bureaucracy because it’s an international organization,” said Shoff, who teaches math and science. “Which is one of the huge strengths for us — connecting to an international community of like-minded learners when we are in such a remote area. We can bring the world to this school, and our teachers to a much larger pool of colleagues.”
By this Friday, all prospective IB teachers — eight or nine of the 25 total faculty and administration at TMS — will have taken a 20-hour course. In addition, all the teachers will have met with Shoff –– the IB coordinator — every couple of weeks to discuss their progress in laying out the courses they intend to teach according to IB standards. Shoff, meanwhile, has been putting all the pieces together — scheduling assessments, determining teaching schedules and setting the annual academic calendar.
“The faculty isn’t just involved with learning their own subject area, but in adopting the whole program,” said Walker. “That’s what this year is all about: training the teachers, getting everybody online. The train has left the station on this. We’re preparing.”
Walker herself will return to the classroom to teach Theory of Knowledge, a core IB course in which students reflect on the nature of knowledge and how we come to know what we know. What makes a piece of art good, for example? When it comes to science, what constitutes adequate evidence? How does a novel represent a genre in the field of literature? Shoff said this kind of professional development, inherent in adopting the IB program, provides teachers with a fantastic skill set and is an effective résumé-builder.
“(Teachers) are internationally-minded to begin with, which is why they are hired at TMS,” Shoff said. “I think they’re optimistic. Hopeful. Becoming more excited because it will provide stability within the school. More importantly, the IB is a natural fusion with what we’re already doing. It’s an improvement, an extension, as opposed to a truly different direction.”
Jesse McTigue, who currently teaches Upper School English and history at TMS, has always been curious about the IB program. She also believes allowing TMS to identify and name what it does well will be an asset for the school.
“We’ve always had incredible programming and initiatives at TMS,” said McTigue. “But it’s hard to communicate that to people who aren’t in this community. IB is good packaging that will differentiate us and communicates what we do.”
McTigue recently completed a four-week, level one online course that introduced her to the IB learner characteristics, methodology and pedagogy. While it’s not entirely different from how she teaches history now, the IB curriculum takes a thematic approach to teaching history and places special emphasis on analyzing sources.
Emily Durkin teaches middle and high school science at TMS. Given the school’s remote location, she hadn’t considered IB as an option. After taking the course to teach IB biology to 11th and 12th graders, it made perfect sense to her.
“The IB program is about developing critical thinkers, global citizens and compassionate students through rigorous academics,” she said. “Our two missions align nicely.”
Both McTigue and Durkin discovered a global classroom through their online IB classes.
“I was only one of three students in the class from the United States,” Durkin said. “The rest of the class was teaching in various types of schools -— public, private and charter — all across the world.”
The International Baccalaureate program’s ultimate goal is to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.
“What we’re really looking to do is to increase these pieces of the learner profile,” Shoff said. “Of critical thinking, of global-mindedness, of open-mindedness, of collaborative work — all things that the IB openly and intentionally embraces.”
The diploma program, established in 1968, organizes teaching and learning through six subject groups: studies in language and literature, language acquisition (at TMS, this is Spanish), individuals and societies, sciences, mathematics and the arts. With guidance, students decide whether to sit for IB exams and whether to complete the diploma program.
“I would expect that there would be very few kids in our school who wouldn’t at least sit for some class certificates,” Walker said. That said, TMS does not expect that all students will attempt to earn the diploma. Shoff anticipates that two-thirds of seniors will sit for the diploma exam. For students who successfully complete the IB diploma, all public schools in Colorado offer advanced standing, which can transfer to a year of college credits.
Shoff explains that TMS’s traditional A-F grades on transcripts won’t change, even though IB uses a different, more intricate six-point grading system. IB headquarters, in Switzerland, monitors all member schools’ grading to establish reliability and consistency.
About half of all schools similar to TMS go on to adopt the IB Middle Years program for grades 6-10 after implementing the diploma program. Walker believes that TMS can prepare its younger students well without implementing (and charging fees for) a formal Middle Years program.
“We recognize that when you buy into IB, you have to buy into the philosophy, the courses,” she said. “It’s Swiss. It’s structured. In the Middle Years program, you don’t have the option to pick and choose. We’re pretty eclectic, and we like that flexibility. By the time students are juniors and seniors, they can buckle down and do the program. Before that, why would we want to give up our autonomy?”
She added that the Upper Years IB program might attract new students to TMS who might otherwise not consider attending. While TMS currently draws students from as far as Ouray, Ridgway, Norwood and Rico, families even further afield might consider moving to the area to enroll students in such a program, she said.
“The challenge is trying to do it all,” Walker admitted. “Because of our commitment to outdoor experiential education, it’s important that we make sure not to lose our flavor.”
The Upper Years IB program enables TMS to leverage the assistance it offers students all the way through the college admissions process — and to recognize academic distinction — even though results from the IB diploma exam aren’t available until a couple of months after seniors graduate.
“Advanced Placement and IB are friendly competitors,” Shoff said. “They are not mutually exclusive. You can take an IB class and sit an AP exam and kind of vice-versa. But when you look at programs for our school, AP is piecemeal and IB is comprehensive.”
Shoff says that a lot of schools have parallel tracks for IB and AP classes for well-rounded, high-performing kids; in these places, IB functions as a sort of school within a school. By contrast, at Telluride Mountain School, IB will be an integrated program. Because of its critical thinking component, he says, IB is very well-regarded among colleges. Anecdotal evidence from the IB suggests acceptance rates to very selective schools for IB diploma students can be 50 percent higher than it is for non-diploma students.
When you look at the Common Application in the section where the subject is the rigor of the student’s curriculum, said Shoff, “one box asks specifically if they are an IB diploma candidate. That gives us credibility.”
“It’s a gold standard,” added Walker. “What other factor could help your odds by 50 percent?”