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IB authorizes Middle Years program for school district

By Kris DiLorenzo

DOBBS FERRY — The Dobbs Ferry educational system has taken a big step into its future. As of Dec. 12, the district has an authorized International Baccalaureate (IB) Middle Years Program for grades 6-10. Dobbs Ferry High School has offered an accredited IB diploma program since 1998, and all juniors and seniors take at least two IB courses a year.

The IB way of learning adheres to a more holistic philosophy than traditional methods. The program aims to develop an international mindset, which the IB organization promotes to help students learn the intellectual, personal, and social skills to live in a globalized environment. In her Dec. 13 letter posted on the Dobbs Ferry School District’s website, Superintendent Lisa Brady emphasized that the idea of “international-mindedness” aligns with the district’s vision of “independent thinkers prepared to change the world.”

For the 578 district students in grades 6 through 10, easing into such conceptual learning has been gradual. Incorporating the IB approach into the curriculum began two years ago. Rather than study several subjects that seem unrelated to one another, and memorizing dates, names, and locations, students look at the subjects thematically, to understand the relationships among different disciplines.

The IB approach does not always rely on tests to assess a student’s progress. Middle Years Program coordinator Jennifer Hickey, who has taught sixth-grade social studies at the middle school for 15 years, called the IB concept “project-based learning.” Though there will be certain tests, such as the Regents exams, teachers are not “teaching to the test,” she said.

“Students will be looking to make more connections in the real world, coming up with ways to solve global issues, emphasizing being a global citizen,” she explained. “Assessments can be research-based; for example, a sociology teacher has looked up ways students can impact their local environment by writing a letter to the mayor or a local representative, sharing findings from their research on the environment.”

An example of interdisciplinary learning is the sixth grade’s unit on alternative energy sources. In their language and literature classes, the children learn to write a persuasive essay, targeting a millionaire or billionaire to invest in their proposed energy source. They also learn different ways to use their research, such as creating an infographic targeted to a specific audience.

A distinctive component of the Middle Years Program is the 10th-grade “Personal Project.” Alongside their coursework in math, science, engineering, history, and language and literature, students develop a project based on their interests, culminating in a Personal Project Expo, open to parents and the community, where students share their work. Hickey likens it to a science fair.

She is enthusiastic about what she’s seen so far. “The different ideas they’ve come up with are amazing. One student is designing a clothing line, because she’s very into fashion. She’s actually come up with what she would sell in a clothing line. This is her passion, and she’s designing it.”

One of the boys is looking at the mechanics of a lacrosse shot, and how mechanics affects the team. He filmed himself making a shot, then evaluated the mechanics of the shot, recording its speed. “He’s looking to improve his sport in a methodical way,” Hickey explained.

Social media is a hot topic for personal projects, she added. One student is examining cyber-bullying. In a health-related project, a mother-daughter team is experimenting with the difference between an organic diet and an ordinary one, and how they affect people.

These projects are the groundwork for what students will do in the 11th and 12th grades, according to Hickey. Since this is first time the Personal Project has been introduced to the 10th grade, the school district is supporting the students in several ways. Students are given a framework to follow, and a set timeline; they also consult with the school librarian about research skills and reliable sources. Connor Cohn, social studies teacher, and Erica Curran, science research teacher, both at Dobbs Ferry High School, are also providing individual support.

The Dobbs Ferry Schools Foundation has been a major source of support of a different kind, pledging $75,000 to fund professional development to implement the program. At least one teacher from each subject area is required to have three days of in-person training as well as four weeks of online training.

Doug Berry, the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, expressed his gratitude for the Foundation’s help. “They accelerated our timeline,” he said. “We were able to get more teachers trained more quickly than we otherwise would have been able to do. It was a tangible demonstration that we had the support of the community in going forward with the initiative.”

The IB evaluation team that visited Dobbs Ferry for three days in October as part of the authorization process commended the district for its Personal Project implementation, calling it "outstanding." The team was also impressed with the student focus groups, and the students in general. Hickey noted, “They were impressed with how respectful, kind, warm, and friendly our students were toward visitors. They really loved our kids. They valued how great our kids are. It was something they said over and over.”

Hickey herself received rave reviews from Berry. She was selected for the coordinator role, he said, “because we wanted to make sure we had someone in the position who had a strong understanding of what good instruction looks like, who has a vision of how things can look different in our classrooms, who is able to embrace the ideas of IB and what that would mean to us; someone who has demonstrated the ability to work with teachers and parents. She’s an incredibly organized, positive, upbeat, hardworking, wonderful teacher, with the background knowledge and enthusiasm. She felt like a natural for us. We needed someone who could span grades 6 through 10, and build a bridge with the high school.”

Berry sees the Middle Years Program as an evolving enterprise. “You continue to learn and grow within the program,” he stated. “We still have units of study to be written or revised. There is so much that can happen. A community service portion could exist in the eighth grade. With the Personal Project, we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface. We’re a learning organization, but we’re never done. Authorization is an important milestone, but we always will have lots of work to do.”

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the Rivertowns Enterprise. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.

DECember 23, 2016

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