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IB Primary Years Programme: The Journey

By Duncan Hossack, Head of Lower School, Saint Andrew's School, Boca Raton, Florida, USA

When we first began to investigate the International Baccalaureate programmes, their suitability for our school and the path to authorization, we spoke with many people at different schools and in diverse roles. One word that kept reappearing was “journey”. In the context of our Lower School we were advised “Be patient. Look upon this as a journey to understanding”. Teachers tend to like things to be well planned and well understood in advance and this concept did not sit well with all. As I write, our Upper School has received authorization for its Diploma programme, and the Middle and Lower Schools are well along the path to authorization for the Middle Years Programme (MYP) and Primary Years Programme (PYP). The word “journey” now seems most appropriate for where we have been and where we are going. In this article I will review some of the highlights of our PYP journey in the hope that it will give encouragement to those schools about to undertake a similar trip.

Saint Andrew’s is a leading independent school located on an 85 acre campus in Boca Raton, Florida, USA. Founded in 1962 by the Episcopal School Foundation, Saint Andrew’s enrols 1300 students- approximately 600 in Upper School (9-12), 240 in Middle School (6-8) and 460 in Lower School (JK-5). We are fortunate to have 100 upper school resident students from around the world living on our campus.

Our most recent strategic plan was unveiled in 2008. One of the strategic issues that we believed should drive us over the following four years was “Educating students to understand and engage with an ever changing world”. That driver led to the development of one of our three strategic goals: “Inspiring Excellence. Saint Andrew’s School will discover, develop and promote forward thinking JK-12 teaching and learning practices that equip and inspire students to become engaged and responsible participants in a diverse and ever changing world.” The pursuit of this strategic goal led us to IB and the journey began from there.

Our first job was to visit other PYP schools to see what the programme was all about. We were welcomed by both public and independent schools in our South Florida neighbourhood, and we visited a number of schools in Canada to provide us with a broader perspective. We noticed that the PYP was flexible and could be successfully adapted to different demographic and academic settings. Our next job was to arrange training for all 60 of our Lower School faculty members. We sent teachers to Tampa, Boston, Miami and Los Angeles. Our most successful training was an onsite session in which we were mentored by two excellent trainers who tailored their teaching to our particular experience.

In selecting a PYP coordinator we weighed the advantages of hiring an experienced PYP educator from another school or developing an internal candidate. We went with the second option and selected a candidate who was widely trusted and respected by the school community. Our coordinator learned on the job as she led the preparation of application A. We were also given a consultant who has proven valuable to us. She has been responsive to our reports and advised us when we needed direction.

We have spent the past year working together to write our planners. We have tried to be creative in offering planning time to our faculty, and the teachers have gone above and beyond. Throughout this process, our six teachers at each grade level have greatly improved their cooperative planning skills. One positive aspect of the planning is that all teachers learned a consistent educational language. When we speak of transdisciplinary units of inquiry or international-mindedness, we share a common understanding of the words and their implication for our practice.

We chose to study two books together over the year. While most of us had read Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design a decade ago, we reread it in the light of our PYP training and saw the connections. We read John Barell’s Why are School Buses Always Yellow?, which focuses on teaching for inquiry in the elementary school. As a part of our faculty meetings, we asked faculty to get together in groups to present their findings. These presentations were one of the highlights of our year and, beyond promoting understanding, served to further a sense of teamwork and togetherness.

At the outset we had decided that we wanted to spend two years in preparation between applications A and B.  We are confident that our students will be well served by the longer and more in depth preparation time that we have dedicated to putting our PYP journey.

We are aiming to submit application B in the spring of 2011, and to have an accreditation visit in the fall of 2011. I do not therefore know whether all of our work will lead to successful authorization, but I can assure those of you contemplating this process that it has proven to be a journey characterized by high energy and hard work. The journey had its bumps and unseen diversions, but has been a journey in which expert guides are always available to keep us on the right path.  With their guidance, we are emerging as a more united and cohesive faculty, even better prepared to serve the learning needs of our students.