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King-Murphy launching IB program

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By Stephen Knapp

Already one of the highest-performing primary schools in the state, King-Murphy Elementary School is shooting for the world.

This fall, King-Murphy will apply to become an International Baccalaureate candidate school and begin phasing in the IB organization’s Primary Years curriculum. With the proper amounts of teacher training, graduated implementation and time, the Clear Creek County school should be fully IB certified by 2011.

“The process takes three or four years,” says King-Murphy principal Denise Hayden. “Right now we’re just in the first phase.”

Well into the first phase, in fact. Hayden and three King-Murphy teachers have already traveled to Austin, Texas, for preliminary training in the program and, at Parent Night on Feb. 25, parents were given a comprehensive explanation of the Primary Years program and IB’s educational philosophy. So far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“They’re really excited about it,” Hayden says. “Some of the parents and staff also visited other schools that use the IB program and were very impressed.”

King-Murphy’s long road to IB certification began last year when Clear Creek Superintendent Doug Price started looking for ways to keep high-achieving schools at the top of their game.

“We thought, ‘We’re already in the top 1 percent in Colorado; what are we going to do to stay there?’” Hayden says. “Once we looked at IB’s philosophy, we realized we wanted to learn more. When we did, we said, ‘Wow, this is a great opportunity for our students.’ ”

Created in 1968, the Switzerland-based nonprofit International Baccalaureate Foundation offers three programs — Primary Years, Middle Years and the Diploma program — corresponding generally to elementary, junior high and high school instruction. In each case, the rigorous, internationally focused curriculum aims to develop lifelong learners and foster global peace through multicultural awareness.

“In the IB ‘learner profile,’ you establish what you want your students to be,” says Heather Zuckerman, the King-Murphy first- and second-grade teacher riding point on the school’s IB effort. “You want them to be thinkers, knowledgeable, open-minded, balanced, principled, all these things. It’s character education. Then you teach them the skills to be all those things.”

Worldwide, about 360 elementary schools have adopted the IB Primary Years program, including a handful in Colorado. At present, King-Murphy is the first foothills school to begin the application process. Unlike the Diploma program, which high school students must apply individually, IB’s Primary and Middle Years curricula are applied across the board.

“It’s all-inclusive at this level,” Hayden explains. “Every student in the school will be on the same program, from special needs to gifted and talented.”

In brief, IB’s Primary Years program begins with six basic categories such as How the World Works and Sharing the Planet that together encompass the full range of primary subjects like art, math and language. Beginning in kindergarten, the instruction within each category grows deeper and wider as students advance in grade.

“No part of a unit can be repeated, so we’ll have to carefully plan a schoolwide curriculum to make sure we don’t duplicate anything,” Hayden says.

Particularly appealing to Principal Hayden, the IB program emphasizes student inquiry as the basis for learning.

“Instead of the teacher running the class, kids ask questions, and the teacher directs learning based on what the kids want to learn about,” she explains. “We’ve found that when kids ask questions and do their own research, they’re much more invested and engaged in the learning process.”

“The No. 1 thing is that the students take ownership of their education,” Zuckerman adds. “They’re not being passive learners. It’s more than an educational program; it’s a philosophy.”

Equally important, Zuckerman says, are the student-initiated service projects that each student must conduct to complement her studies. For a unit on wetland ecology, for instance, a child might spend a day or two weeding at Evergreen Lake.

“A lot of times the kids open a book and read about something, but it’s not tied to the real world,” she says. “This whole program takes education out of the classroom and brings it into the real world. It empowers kids to think they can actually make a positive difference in the world.”

Those King-Murphy teachers who haven’t done so will undergo IB training this summer, and they’ll introduce the Primary Years curriculum to the kids in September. While the shift will certainly require some mental adjustment by both students and teachers, Hayden expects the transition to be painless.

“Here at King-Murphy, we challenge our kids a lot, and the new curriculum will incorporate a lot of things we’re doing already,” she says. “What this will do is channel their interests and energy together, and when you can do that, they have a chance to really fly.”