Niu Valley Middle to pilot elite curriculum
By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer
By Beverly Creamer
Less than a year into his tenure as principal at Niu Valley Middle School, Justin Mew is charting a new and spectacular course for the school — one that could prove challenging for his sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders but could also launch them toward the nation's top colleges and boost their standardized test scores even higher.
By this fall, Mew expects Niu Valley Middle to become the first Hawai'i public school to pilot the International Baccalaureate program, an elite curriculum that's gaining momentum on the Mainland as public schools seek to ramp up the rigor of their offerings to meet No Child Left Behind goals.
While other public schools — including Campbell and Kaiser High — are also beginning to investigate the program, it requires a considerable financial and time commitment because of the demanding accreditation process, the level of teacher training required, and the cost for the assessment of each student, which is done by an international panel of educators.
But what it offers is a more globally focused education that leads students on to top colleges or perhaps a shorter and less costly college experience.
The program seeks to mold students, from preschool age on, into "transdisciplinary" and bilingual scholars who can accomplish a major academic project by fifth grade and then move into deeper studies in secondary schools and beyond.
Teachers at IB schools on the Mainland say the programs help students compete in a global world, understand diverse cultures and learn early the importance of understanding other cultures. They also say that the programs can help students pass standardized state exams, especially in low-income areas facing the threat of sanctions under No Child Left Behind.
Thus far, the IB program has been used in Hawai'i only at private schools.
"I think the beauty of the IB program is when it was put into Mid-Pac it not only was there for our top students, it filtered down lower and basically raised standards for everybody," said Gareth Russell, coordinator of the program at Mid-Pacific Institute. The school has offered IB classes at the high school since 1989.
Dyanna Buenconsejo Okazaki of Hawai'i Kai is so excited about the program coming to Niu Valley that she's considering moving into the neighborhood just so her three young children will be eligible.
"There's worldwide recognition of this program," said Okazaki, who raves about the year of IB English and Spanish she took in 1989, her senior year at Mid-Pac.
"I told my husband, 'This is simply phenomenal.' Every child should have this opportunity."
But critics wonder whether the elementary program is a bit much for a student demographic that still receives scratch-and-sniff stickers on written work.
"We initially hear from parents that they're a little worried about the amount of work," said Sandra Coyle, a regional marketing and communications manager for the IB organization, in an interview with the Washington Post. "But they do realize the way it expands their children's minds and teaches them how to learn and how it helps them to manage their schedules. We like to say that IB prepares kids for success in college but also for success in life."
Mew is still wrestling with how widely to offer the program to Niu Valley students, but likely will make it optional rather than mandatory. As well, the staff still must figure out where to put it in the school day or whether the two foreign languages he's proposing will be afterschool options.
"I thought we could address the motivated as well as the gifted and talented this way," said Mew. "But potentially it's for the whole school. When I became principal here in February, the first thing that struck me was how capable the students are."
WHAT PROGRAM IS LIKE
IB elementary classes differ from the ordinary in several ways. Subjects as varied as economics and nonfiction writing can be taught in a single IB class. When students begin learning new material, they are asked to think of numerous questions that get posted on the chalkboard under a title such as "What we want to find out," giving classes an investigative feel.
The middle school curriculum, meanwhile, calls for a foreign language as well as a major original research thesis project for every student before entry into high school. These projects mean working with a teacher mentor much as college students do.
Along with a strong core curriculum of internationally focused material in language arts, science, math and social studies, Niu Valley's Mew hopes to offer two foreign languages, Mandarin and Japanese, to his students. And he'll see eighth-graders completing a lengthy, research-based essay or project that might more readily be considered a thesis.
"When you shoot high, everyone rises up," said Mew. "My concern with NCLB is that the focus is only on reading and math and I notice that schools that aren't making it or are in restructuring are getting rid of the arts. But with International Baccalaureate you have all of those areas. To me as an educator, a well-rounded person should have all of those. And the research has shown the students do better."
Niu Valley students have scored well on the state's standardized tests, but "we still lose a lot of students to the private schools," said Mew, whose school has been nominated for federal Blue Ribbon School status three years in a row. "So I thought we could address the motivated as well as the gifted and talented in this way."
A Washington Post review of nearly all authorized IB public elementary schools in the country found that three-fourths made their goals, or achieved "adequate yearly progress," under the federal law, based on the past academic year's test results. Further, more than two-thirds of the IB schools designated for federal Title I anti-poverty funding made adequate yearly progress.
Niu Valley Middle made AYP again last year and far exceeded state averages for proficiency in reading and math, but two-thirds of the state's 282 public schools did not meet their goals.
The independent Mid-Pacific Institute implemented the International Baccalaureate curriculum almost 20 years ago in the junior and senior years of high school. The result has been more students better prepared for top-notch colleges, said high school principal Rich Schaffer.
Now all three Mid-Pacific principals — elementary, middle and high school — are drafting a plan to expand some form of the program to the entire school. Several other public schools are said to be looking into launching the process of IB accreditation as well.
"Our students who complete the diploma program have had outstanding success at college," said Schaffer. "It really improves their chances at admission at the more prestigious schools. And on top of that, students can get up to a full year of college completed beforehand, saving anywhere from $40,000 to $50,000 in tuition. At all the California schools — like Berkeley, Irvine, UCLA — if a student gets the full diploma, they get a one-year advanced standing (and enter as a sophomore.)"
Although Hawai'i public schools are under a single administrative entity — the Board of Education — individual schools can implement the International Baccalaureate program as they see fit, said Department of Education spokesman Greg Knudsen.
"This is kind of what it takes — someone to instigate an interest and move it forward," said Knudsen. "It's not really suitable for every school or every community. It's something that should be left to individual schools to select and pursue. And it would still need to meet the requirements of the Hawai'i Content and Performance Standards, but I believe it could be adapted to that."
But of Hawai'i public schools, only Niu Valley appears close to implementation, even though there are still major hurdles including the need to launch a fundraising campaign to help pay for teacher training and salaries for new language teachers. State funding will pay the approximately $10,000 it costs to buy the curriculum, but state money is not allowed to be used to send teachers out of state for training.
According to educators, no child need be a genius to succeed in course work in the IB program. But students do need focus and motivation.
For students like 2005 Mid-Pac graduate Shawn Yoshimura, who earned an IB diploma and is now a second-semester sophomore at New York University, the IB experience "gets you in the right mindset for what to expect in college."
Yoshimura has sailed through essay-writing assignments, been able to dabble in a far broader selection of upper-level courses and found himself interested in a combination of fields, which is what the IB program prepared him for.
"I'm very interested in a new field called behavioral economics and I think it's because of the International Baccalaureate," said Yoshimura.The Washington Post contributed to this report.
Reach Beverly Creamer at email@example.com.