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October 5, 2012

Avalon first elementary in county to achieve IB status

By Kristyne E. Demske
C & G Staff Writer

The first in the county, Avalon Elementary in South Lake Schools is celebrating its designation as an International Baccalaureate World School offering the Primary Years Programme.

Candice Merivirta, the PYP coordinator for the district, said they’ve been working toward authorization for the past four years.

The program is different because it focuses on six transdisciplinary themes: sharing the planet, how the world works, how we organize ourselves, how we express ourselves, who we are, and where we are in place and time. Focusing on those themes throughout all subjects helps the students to learn their interconnectedness in the world and fosters independence in learning.

“What they’re learning here is applicable to people living in lots of other places,” she said. “They’re being asked, as young people, to take action and make a difference in very small things, whether it’s sharing that information with a parent or organizing a fundraiser.

“International Baccalaureate is truly a philosophy. It’s not like a dictated curriculum; it’s a philosophy about educating the whole child.”

The Learner Profile at the heart of the Primary Years Programme also helps to develop globally thinking individuals by fostering inquiry, honing thinking and communication skills, and developing an open-minded atmosphere. Those qualities are embedded in each lesson and modeled each day by members of the school community.

South Lake Schools Superintendent Pam Balint said they began the quest for certification out of awareness that students would need those global skills more now than in generations past.

“I’m proud because many times people who maybe wanted to turn away from it, stuck with it because they came to understand that it’s good for kids — it’s good for all kids,” she said.

She said other PYP schools in Michigan don’t look like Avalon Elementary — they are in more affluent areas and are much larger schools. There are about 300 students at Avalon Elementary.

“We’re committed to equity in education,” she said. “We believe that all kids are entitled to the highest quality education.”

And because there’s no moving away from the global economy, she said they want to give South Lake students the best chance possible to compete in it.

Avalon Elementary School Principal Jeanne Poleski said everyone in the building is excited about the authorization.

Poleski said the school is already in the “full swing” of offering the program, because it had to be instituted and perfected before the school could host an authorization visit — which it did in May — and submit to months of study of its curriculum. 

She said they were notified in August that the school was authorized on its first time through, an unusual feat. It shared the news with school families in September when the authorization letter finally arrived.

“Our students were just glowing. We have been working for this with such parent support and commitment that they have been truly overjoyed,” Poleski said. “International Baccalaureate is considered to be one of the most prestigious authorizations that a school can possibly have.”

Offering the PYP means that the lessons offered at Avalon could be taught anywhere in the world and still be relevant. They meet rigorous academic standards and will hopefully increase student achievement.

“International Baccalaureate is not a curriculum. It’s a process in reflecting on how you do teaching and learning to increase the rigor to be at its highest level,” she said. “The students are just better prepared to live and work in our global world.”

Elmwood Elementary is also seeking PYP authorization, but its application was returned with a matter to be addressed. Merivirta said they hope to resubmit the application this fall and receive authorization in the winter. Koepsell Education Center is a Glasser Quality School and won’t be seeking IB authorization because it already operates using that educational philosophy.

Students will become a part of the Primary Years Programme with enrollment at Avalon Elementary. Unlike the high school level International Baccalaureate programs, there is no test required to attend the school.

“If you come, you are part of this school community, and this is what you will receive,” Merivirta said. “They can take these skills with them throughout their life. Kids know they are learning to be thinkers and to work on their social skills and academic skills.”

The curriculum is still aligned to state grade level expectations and the common core standards, and “there is differentiation to meet the student at the level they’re in,” she said.

“That individualized or that differentiated instruction, that’s at the core of it.”

Poleski said they have already seen changes in the students.

“We already can see that our students are much better at inquiring … about taking charge of their own learning,” she said. “We’re really seeing a transformation of the level of learning that our children are showing.”

But it has taken a lot of work to get there.

“It’s been a huge commitment and dedication on the part of the school board, superintendent, building leaders, staff, everyone, to have this come to fruition,” Merivirta said.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Kristyne E. Demske at kdemske@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1041.