International Baccaulaureate primary school a first for the state

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- Morris Jeff Community School second-grade teacher Chris Moore talks to students at the first International Baccalaurate elementary school in Louisiana.
Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- Morris Jeff Community School second-grade teacher Chris Moore talks to students at the first International Baccalaurate elementary school in Louisiana.

With learning centered on curiosity and compassion, the students heading back to Morris Jeff Community School this week are the first in the state to attend an International Baccalaureate elementary school.

The Mid-City school’s leaders have been working toward the authorization since applying for the charter about four years ago.

There are seven other high schools in Louisiana offering the IB program, including International High School in New Orleans.

The mission of the IB program was always aligned with the mission of the school’s founders, Principal Patricia Perkins said. According to the IB mission statement, the school “aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.”

The IB was founded as an educational nonprofit in Geneva in 1968. Today, IB works with more than 3,500 hundred schools in 146 countries through curriculum development, student assessment, training and professional development for teachers and school evaluation.

Perkins said the goal is to produce students who are internationally-minded, considerate, reflective, inquisitive and open-minded risk-takers.

The three-year process and continued implementation of the IB program is rigorous — and expensive — but Perkins said the school made it a priority, and they fundraised diligently in order to continue to meet the standards for authorization.

Before they start at Morris Jeff, every new teacher attends an IB conference. From the teachers, it requires “a lot of extra work, drive, energy and thought,” Perkins said. “You have to be curious. You have to want to learn.”

And if they aren’t on board with the program and philosophy, then the school just isn’t the right fit, Perkins said.

Under the IB program’s framework, students learn through defined units focused on an inquiry into the way the world works. Lessons in math, science, reading, writing, social studies and Spanish are interspersed within the framework of the IB units.

Phonics is one of the few subjects that stand alone, Morris Jeff IBcoordinator Lisa Smith noted, but for the most part, everything is connected to the larger theme.

In Kindergarten, under the theme of “Sharing the Planet,” students learned about recycling, reusing, and the scarcity of resources. Perkins described one kindergarten student who took it upon himself to post a letter on her door questioning why the school does not recycle.

This year, blue bins dot the campus and a large dumpster out back is devoted to recycling. Instigated by the 5-year-old, they found a way to do it without adding exorbitant costs, Perkins said. The students are encouraged to initiate action, Smith said, whether “small or grandiose.”

Part of the unit also included lessons on water as a finite resource and the global need for conservation, as students learned to track and measure their daily water usage both at home and at school. Perkins noted that lesson coincidently occurred at the same time the Sewerage and Water Board started charging schools for water.

The lessons are designed to be relevant, engaging, and have real-life applications, Smith said.

While combining lessons on persuasive writing and Louisiana’s fragile environment, one student wrote an essay about wetland degradation that won $10,000 for her class. Half of the money was devoted to a trip to Grand Isle to plant marsh grass. The other half went to karate lessons.

They’ve taken field trips to the top of the World Trade Center to learn about aerial views and mapping. On a trip to Rouse’s, students took a behind-the-scenes look at every department, learning from butcher to baker, how each contributes to the larger community.

“We always connect their learning to the bigger picture,” Smith said.

Perkins said she seeks to foster a curriculum that listens to and incorporates the curiosities of the students.

“Our charter addresses state accountability, but it doesn’t focus on it,” Perkins said. The school has proved appealing for parents who “don’t want a lot of test prep and drilling,” she said, of Morris Jeff’s more holistic approach.

Under the IB framework, the students counted and brought recycled Mardi Gras beads to ARK residents, held food drives for Second Harvest, and raised money by filling five-gallon water jugs with coins.

Some of the pocket change collected went to two schools in New Jersey affected by Hurricane Sandy, as well as an orphanage in Africa in need of a fence to separate the chickens from the coyotes.

According to the IB mission statement: “We encourage a positive attitude to learning by encouraging students to ask challenging questions, to critically reflect, to develop research skills, to learn how to learn and to participate in community service.”

Perkins said she particularly likes the last part of the IB mission statement: “These programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.”

“We have a world that needs improvement,” Perkins said. “It’s on us to steer them in that direction — how to be open-minded and relate to others. And make the world a better place.”