Lakewood students fully immersed in prestigious international K-12 program

Lakewood’s Clover Park School District is the first in Washington to gain full authorization for the prestigious International Baccalaureate program for students at every grade level.

The most recent addition is the IB Diploma Programme for students in the final two years of high school at Harrison Preparatory School, a combined middle and high school.

While other school districts, including Tacoma, offer IB programs at elementary, middle and high schools, not all have completed the final authorization steps. This process can take several years.

“The community asked us to provide our students with rigorous educational opportunities,” said Clover Park School Board President Marty Schafer. “We are proud to offer IB programs to students in kindergarten through grade 12.”

Lani Neil, whose son Maddox is in the IB program at Idlewild Elementary, said that what she likes most is its emphasis on student independence.

“Kids are encouraged to be their own problem-solvers,” she said.

Whether it’s resolving a conflict between peers or seeking help on a math problem, she said, IB kids are encouraged to try to work it out themselves. Her older son Magnus also went through IB at Idlewild.

“My kids will say to me, ‘Can you come support me on something?’ instead of ‘Mom, I can’t do this,’ ” Neil said.

Haydee Viera’s son Samuel is a sophomore in his second year at Harrison Prep.

Her husband is in the Army, and the family lives at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. She learned about Clover Park’s IB program from another military family before moving here from Maryland.

“I wanted to make sure he was getting the education he deserved,” she said of Samuel. “When we found out about Harrison Prep, we didn’t think twice about it. He feels challenged. He tries his best.”

The IB program, founded in 1968, is governed by a nonprofit organization that works with nearly 4,000 schools around the world.

IB offers rigorous coursework sometimes compared to the advanced placement curriculum. But while AP is a stand-alone class that typically covers as much college-level material as possible in one subject, IB is more interdisciplinary — and multi-age.

Clover Park’s program has grown in stages. After several years of preliminary work, in 2011 Harrison Prep earned authorization for its Middle Years IB program, for students in grades six through 10. Then in 2014, Idlewild became an IB Primary Years school. And now Harrison Prep’s 11th and 12th graders can participate in the IB Diploma Programme.

The IB diploma offers students a chance to broaden their experience during the final years of high school. They are pushed to go beyond the traditional curriculum and apply their knowledge and skills in several areas.

At the high school level, IB has three core components:

•  Theory of Knowledge, in which students are asked to reflect on the nature of knowledge itself and on how we know what we think we know.

• A 4,000-word paper based on a student’s self-directed research.

• A project that combines creativity, action and service.

High school students also study in several designated subject groups, including literature and languages, science, math and the arts.

One way to describe IB is that it’s a classical education with an added element that emphasizes individual inquiry.

High school students who pass an IB exam earn the IB diploma, which may qualify them for college credits. Credits for IB are awarded by colleges and vary from institution to institution.

Even students who don’t score high enough to earn college credits have their IB courses noted on their transcripts. That shows colleges that a student is serious about academics and has taken challenging high school classes.

“What IB is about is interconnected learning in a global setting,” said Casey Silbaugh, IB coordinator at Harrison Prep. “It is in-depth learning.”

She said graduates report back that IB made them feel well-prepared for college.

IB students begin learning multiple languages from the start. At Idlewild, students study Spanish beginning in kindergarten. Neil likes that her kids learn a language at school that is often heard in their community.

“Kids can make a connection,” she said. “You can go to the grocery store, pick up a package of pasta and read the label in Spanish.”

Susan Morgan, the IB coordinator at Idlewild, said teachers must ensure that the curriculum aligns with both state and IB standards.

A state standard, for example, requires fourth-graders to learn about Washington state history and geography.

“At Idlewild, we don’t just teach about our communities,” Morgan said. “We go outside the United States to see how communities are the same and how they are different.”’

Idlewild fourth-grade teacher Dori Zukowski said she teaches about Washington history, but she also asks students to think about why different groups of people settled here.

The goal is to teach kids to “be a thinker, be an inquirer,” she said.

Brian Olsen teaches English at Harrison Prep, and will instruct the Theory of Knowledge class for the diploma program. He says the class deals in concepts that philosophers term epistemology. It asks students to delve into the origin and limits of human knowledge.

Isn’t that pretty highfalutin’ stuff for high school kids?

“It is,” Olsen said, but added that Harrison Prep kids are up to the challenge.

“Some come here because it’s their choice,” he said. “For others, it’s because their mom and dad want them to take that next step. It’s a mixture of those who are committed (academically) and those who need to be convinced.”

Olsen, a Tacoma resident, first learned about IB several years ago when his oldest daughter attended Foss High School in Tacoma, which has had an IB program for many years.

“What I liked about it is that the stars are those who made a commitment to do well academically and apply themselves intellectually,” he said. “IB is not the only way, but it’s a good way.”

Students with a passion for both academics and athletics, for example, may choose a school other than Harrison Prep, which doesn’t offer varsity-level sports.

Both Harrison Prep, which moved into a new building this year, and Idlewild attract students from throughout the Clover Park School District. But district spokeswoman Kim Prentice said it’s uncertain whether enrollment at Idlewild will remain as flexible in the future.

Prentice said all district elementary schools are feeling the impacts of full-day kindergarten and lower class sizes in the early elementary years — both state initiatives.

In addition, she said, the school district’s proposal to shift boundaries for other elementary schools could indirectly impact capacity at Idlewild. She said the district will communicate with affected parents as soon as plans become final. The School Board is scheduled to vote on the boundary changes Monday.