A voyage of discovery

Navigating the IB authorization process can seem like an expedition into the unknown for many. We asked four schools at different stages of the journey to share their experiences

Landing a Nobel Prize, becoming a Rhodes Scholar, scaling Everest… all achievements that require dedication, inspiration and hard work. IB World Schools might be tempted to add the IB authorization process to the list.

The analogy might be flippant, but the rigour involved in becoming an IB World School is very real – and it’s a necessity as the IB seeks to grow its influence and maintain its high standards. The number of programmes taught has grown by 10 per cent in the last 10 years, and schools are increasingly seeing the value of the IB curriculum. But to do so, they have to complete a rigorous authorization process and staff are required to compile an application that provides evidence to support their candidacy.

This process can be daunting, particularly for schools with no prior IB experience. “We get excited when a school realizes how challenging the authorization exercise is but keeps going and then really embraces the IB philosophy,” says Pam Bender, Head of Pre-authorization Services.

Many are coming to appreciate that the process works in favour of those genuinely seeking a modern, global education. “Schools who only want to join the IB for commercial reasons are normally weeded out for not having done their homework,” adds Bender.“They’re shocked when they realize how in-depth the process is.” The IB actively supports candidate schools in a number of ways. “We’ve sent consultants to schools since 2010,” explains Bender.

“Previously, schools did all the necessary work independently prior to their authorization visit. But many schools weren’t authorized using this method.” Now consultants will write a report, including recommendations for the school, and this guidance can help achieve a successful result, says Bender. After authorization, schools undergo a thorough programme evaluation every five years, which includes completing a self-study process and a possible visit from the IB.

This provides fresh insight and keeps spirits high. IB World spoke to four schools, all at different points in the authorization process, and asked what they have learned along the way. We also talked to the IB’s School Services team about how the organization’s four new enhancement services are offering additional support to IB World Schools.

Interested school

Daniel McHugh, teacher of history and economics and IB Coordinator, British School of Bahrain, Bahrain

In the next few days, my school will submit its application for IB Diploma Programme candidacy. I’m exceptionally busy right now. We currently teach BTEC and A-Level courses.

We feel that by offering the IB, we’ll be providing programmes that suit all of our students and challenge them appropriately. Deciding to implement the IB Diploma Programme has been a long process. We worried we’d dilute our current offering by adding a new programme. My job was to collect all the information and create a feasibility study. The board reviewed the report and now we’re certain the IB is right for us. The feedback we’ve had from students is they don’t know enough about the IB yet, but they are motivated to find out more.

We have got a solid number of students who like directing their own studies anyway, so they’ve already adopted an IB learning style. Although we accept the IB might not be for everyone, we have seen enough students show interest and we’re confident they’ll achieve good results. We’ve involved parents in this process too. We considered getting their opinions using surveys but, given the complexity of the decision-making process and the questions we knew parents would have, we felt qualitative data would be more suitable, so we held focus groups. We talked through what the IB is and asked them what they thought. There’s still a healthy amount of scepticism because, quite frankly, they don’t understand it. The way the IB is delivered is a quantum leap for many parents who are used to having their children come through a British school system.

The school completely supports the authorization process. We’ve already put money into a pot that’s ring-fenced for the IB, including a substantial amount for staff training, which we feel is incredibly important. When we become an IB World School, we want to be the best possible IB World School. The September 2016 start date will sneak up on us quickly, and the process will be a huge amount of work. Documenting the more tangible aspects, such as what classrooms and facilities we require, are easily achievable. But the intangible aspects are more difficult.

Can we get the philosophy right by 2016? Can we affect a culture change across the school? We want to make our errors now and improve over the upcoming months so we don’t make mistakes when we implement the programme. We shouldn’t get our candidate application in, then relax. We need to be as ready in 2016 as we can be.

Candidate school

Eric Pignot, Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer, and Bamidele Akinbo, Head of School and IB Diploma Programme Coordinator, Enko Education

Students in central Africa are hugely ambitious. They want to study at international universities, but the national or regional diplomas that high schools award limit their chances when applying. When we realized this, we identified a huge opportunity to build a school network in Africa offering an IB education. That’s how Enko Education began.

Now we’re going through the authorization process to open the first IB World Schools in central Africa, starting in Cameroon. Complexe Scolaire International La Gaieté, in the capital, Yaoundé, will offer the IB Diploma Programme. We partnered with this school because it’s successful and has been established for 10 years. Also, as there’s an English and a French section, it is already internationally focused. We are planning to open our first class in September 2015.

On the orientation day, we promised parents that they would see a transformation in their children within two months. After having introduced IB concepts and ideals in class, we had our first parents’ meeting recently. One parent said, ‘I don’t know what you did but my daughter is livelier and has more to say. In the past, she kept to herself.’ But a few challenges still remain. Sub-Saharan Africa has IB World Schools already, but most of them are American and high-end in terms of the cost. We have a fantastic product and the demand is here, but how do we create a model that is affordable? We’re trying to bring the IB to a new layer of the population.

Also, most of our teachers are from conventional schools and adapting has been a challenge for them. They’re going through the transformative experience of paradigm shifts, but they’re all passionate about delivering an international curriculum. We’re constantly seeking improvement opportunities, so regular personal development for our teachers is essential. We encourage them to take charge by assigning them challenging but rewarding tasks.

Granting teachers a sense of ownership in the programme’s implementation demonstrates that their input is valued. To promote the programme, we’ve been on key TV and radio stations in Cameroon, issued press releases, presented at forums, collaborated with the heads of both private and public schools, and contacted multinationals and the embassies in Yaoundé.

We also have a volunteers’ network we dubbed ‘Enko Ambassadors’ who help create awareness of the programme. After we are authorized, we want to expand into other sub-Saharan African countries, including Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire and The Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Our intention is to open five schools over the next year. It’s ambitious, but we’re committed! In the future, we may see potential for other programmes, but for now, our focus remains on the IB Diploma Programme. It’s our students’ gateway to international studies.

Recently authorized school

Denise Desjardin, Principal, Young Diplomats Magnet Academy, New York City, USA

In September 2014, we were authorized as the first PYP school in the New York City public school system. We joined a group of magnet schools four years ago and the superintendent decided we should be the school which takes on the IB. I knew nothing about the IB back then. I could barely pronounce ‘baccalaureate’! I immediately began researching. I attended as many training sessions, read as many books and visited as many IB World Schools as I could.

Fortunately, many people I met were supportive, welcoming and helpful. I’d definitely recommend other teachers, who are interested in the IB, to reach out to other schools. It kept the team motivated and gave us reassurance that we were doing things right. Our authorization process wasn’t easy. It took four years. We didn’t receive the necessary funding immediately. Staff were training on weekends and evenings. Then, when New York adopted the Common Core, a set of academic standards used in the USA, it was a challenge adopting two new styles at once and our test scores dropped as a result. It was very disheartening and my staff wanted to give up.

But the students and their families encouraged us to persevere. Parents would say, ‘I can’t believe my first grader told me to be open minded when we were out to dinner’ or ‘My child actually told me to be a risk taker.’ This motivated the teachers. Parents have also noticed changes to their children’s homework. It’s based on enquiry and research so the parents have to help. We kept parents involved with the process by providing workshops and producing a monthly newsletter. They initially were apprehensive, but now their mindset has shifted.

Everybody knows this learning style is part of our culture. What I’ve found most intriguing about the PYP was the action component. Growing up, I learnt things just because I was told to learn them. By being held accountable for taking action, you’re not only learning, you are becoming part of the solution. I like how students research topics and the facts aren’t just thrown at them. They are taking ownership of their learning. How powerful is that?

The way of learning was a big shift for us. Before, teaching was departmentalized. Students did 45 minutes of reading, then 45 minutes of writing, then 45 minutes of science and so on. Now, everything is connected and more meaningful. You can really dig deeper into a topic. Now we’ve been authorized, we’re focusing on sustainability. I’ve seen other schools in the area try to adopt the IB but, when the school’s management changes, it’s become too difficult to maintain. I want to build sustainability at the school, so if the day comes when I’m not here, everything continues seamlessly.

Adding a new programme

Nigel J Winnard, Principal, Khartoum International Community School, Sudan

We’re dissatisfied with our current middle years offering. It feels incompatible with our vision of 21st-century learning. We already offer the PYP and IB Diploma Programme, so my school is considering adding the MYP. We’re figuring out whether we can become philosophically consistent across the school’s three sections but, to be honest, that includes questioning the PYP and IB Diploma Programme too. A lot of pieces are up in the air right now.

As the only IB World School in the country, we’ve brought a new education philosophy to Sudan. When we opened 10 years ago, we were determined to bring the PYP and IB Diploma Programme to Sudan. We discussed MYP then but couldn’t commit to it. It was too big a culture shift at the time. There are two reasons the MYP is back on our radar. Firstly, our school is able to embrace some progressive teaching methodologies now because we’ve proved our worth to our community. Secondly, we feel that the recent revision of the MYP means it’s worth re-examining.

Our previous authorizations went smoothly. The subsequent evaluation visits for the PYP have been useful for us, too. In fact, we’ve got a PYP evaluation visit coming up soon. We’re hoping this will give us the fresh eyes we need. Because there’s an explicit pedagogical framework, I’m expecting the authorization process for the MYP to be similar to the PYP. That’s what all my research is suggesting. But I think the challenge will be selling the idea to high-school teachers whose professional preparation is much more fragmented.

I expect the process to be expensive, too. That’s a challenge schools in developing locations face. We’re a long way from anywhere so accessing training is very costly. Online training is helping but face-to-face opportunities are still essential.

Right now, we’re in a research phase and we’re busy talking to other MYP schools and teachers about their experiences. If we feel the programme is on our shortlist, the next step will be asking a consultant to talk in more detail with the board, the leadership team and parents about what an MYP school would look like here in Sudan.

We expect to spend at least two years investigating before we decide whether to pursue MYP authorization. You can never rush a good decision.

It’s a two-way process. On the one hand, it’s learning about what MYP is but, on the other, it’s a voyage of self-discovery as an institution. If you skimp on either of those two processes, chances are you’ll get a bad outcome.