Central Middle School seventh-graders decoded hieroglyphics inside an ancient Egyptian tomb Wednesday.
With flashlights in hand, students walked through the cool, dark space past mummies and ancient treasures.
Of course, the students didn’t actually trek to Egypt. In fact, they never left their school.
Humanities teacher Pat O’Brien created the tomb for her students more than a decade ago. But it’s especially useful today as the Kokomo middle school works to become an International Baccalaureate school that focuses on project-based learning and global awareness.
By March, Central Middle School and three other Kokomo schools might join the fewer than 50 schools statewide authorized to offer the international-based curriculum that’s respected by universities around the world.
Kokomo-Center Schools has been piloting the international school model at Kokomo High School, Central Middle School and Lafayette Park and Sycamore elementary schools for two-and-a-half years.
Next month, evaluators from Minnesota, Colorado and Canada will spend more than two days at the schools to analyze their progress.
They will spend time in classrooms and interview students, teachers and parents. They will pick apart curriculum, assessments and school policies, said Central Middle School Principal Mike Sargent.
At the end of the visit, the evaluators will decide if the schools should become official International Baccalaureate schools.
Making a Decision
The program has been a long time coming in the school district.
School board members in the 1980s had looked into it, Sargent said. The last superintendent researched it.
Then, Superintendent Jeff Hauswald came along. He had some background in the program and knew how important it was, Sargent said.
The discussion shifted away from “if” the district would implement the new curriculum to “when” it would.
“We have to develop an option for students to prepare them for the 21st century,” Sargent said. “It was the desire to offer something unique for our students.”
Students say it’s definitely unique.
True to life
Class assignments are more hands-on.
Eighth-graders right now are working on cartoons that depict Lewis and Clark’s expedition. In English they made an alphabet book of memories, and the science classes crafted a poster explaining an element on the periodic table.
“I don’t get nearly as much out of lectures and tests,” said eighth-grader Madison Reed. “I really apply what I learn here.”
Teachers said their projects are “realistic and true to life.”
Educators work together to show students how all classes are interconnected.
At the end of the year, all seventh-grade classes will participate in a unit on water.
Teachers will pose the question, “How will we quench thirst in the world?”
Math classes will measure water volume. Science classes will learn about water-borne illnesses. Humanities classes will explore water problems in Africa and projects to build wells there. Spanish classes will present the water cycle using the language.
By the end of the unit, kids will participate in a water walk. They’ll carry buckets filled with water along the Walk of Excellence to Foster Park. The exercise is supposed to demonstrate what people in third-world countries go through to get clean water to their homes, teachers said.
A global society
International-mindedness is a big focus of the international school model.
“They’re very aware they’re part of a global society,” O’Brien said of her students.
Teachers are constantly trying to foster a worldly perspective, Sargent said.
During the water unit, science teacher Vickie Linehan transforms her room into a Kenyan classroom. She removes all tables, chairs and desks and challenges students to sit on the floor to understand how other kids learn.
And kids and adults from Korea, Japan, China, Costa Rica and India have stopped by the middle school to talk to students.
“I like meeting new people from other countries,” eighth-grader Aditi Sood said. “It’s pretty exciting.”
Starting from Scratch
Sargent said teachers have worked hard to establish this program in their classrooms.
They were required to participate in 50 hours of professional development last year. They gave up nights and weekends to restructure their curriculum, the principal said.
“You’re basically throwing everything out and starting from scratch,” Sargent said. “It takes a lot of work to get there.”
The international school model emphasizes teaching the “whole student.”
Teachers are helping students become caring, curious, knowledgeable, balanced, reflective, open-minded citizens who know how to take risks, communicate well and act with integrity and honesty, Sargent said.
Teachers are also tackling skills students will need for high school and college.
They teach kids about issues like plagiarism and finding valid sources online.
“You have a lot of information to fit in 180 days,” Sargent said.
But it’s paying off. The principal said he’s already seen growth in state assessment scores for the students in the international school program.
The curriculum has been a challenge for students, though.
The International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program for students in sixth to 10th grades is more challenging academically than the Primary Years Program for elementary school students, Sargent said.
Eighth-graders are taking freshmen algebra courses, and starting in seventh grade, students take Spanish as a core class.
By the time they move to high school, they could have two semesters of Spanish and two semesters of algebra under their belts.
Every student is required to log a set number of community service hours outside of school, too.
Sargent said many volunteer at the Kokomo Rescue Mission or at the humane society. Some shovel snow away from their neighbors’ driveways.
The challenges and time commitment hasn’t deterred students from enrolling in the program, though.
There are 1,370 students enrolled in the Primary Years Programs at Sycamore and Lafayette Park. Another 480 are in the Middle Years Program at Central and Kokomo High School.
A big commitment
The program is just not easy, though, the principal said.
Sargent said he isn’t surprised that few Indiana schools offer the International Baccalaureate program.
“It’s a big commitment,” he said.
According to the International Baccalaureate organization, only 29 schools statewide offer one of the three IB programs — the Primary Years Program, Middle Years Program or Diploma Program.
Kokomo-Center Schools could become the fourth to offer the Middle Years Program. Three schools in Indianapolis are the only ones authorized to offer it now.
The Diploma Program appears to be the most popular. Twenty high schools in the state offer it, according to the IB website.
Adding a program
Kokomo-Center Schools hopes to be added to that list by next year.
They wanted to establish the other two programs before adding the diploma track because it’s the toughest by far, said Dave Barnes, director of communications for the district.
Kokomo officials have talked to school leaders who added the diploma program before anything else.
“They said they were struggling something awful,” Barnes said. “Their kids came up and were not ready for the rigors, the intensity.”
Students in the diploma program are taking six advanced placement classes their junior and senior years, Sargent said.
They have a “huge” extended essay to write and a Creativity, Action, Service project to create, he said.
And before graduation, students have to take six International Baccalaureate exams.
Two years ago, 867 Indiana students took 2,452 exams. They passed 76 percent of them, according to Indiana Department of Education data.
“It’s intense,” Sargent said. “There’s a reason [the program] is internationally respected. There’s nothing easy about it. But it’s a huge opportunity for our students.”