In the fall of 2019, I gathered my leadership team to create a clear and compelling academic vision for our school. Our current strategic plan was wrapping up in 2020 and I knew that we needed to do something to keep our school moving forward. We needed a vision that was clearly articulated and deeply missional. Over the next six months, we read books, examined various models of deeper learning, talked with school leaders, and participated in a consultant-led visioning retreat.
In the end, we established five specific goals to guide us in our work:
- Academic Unity – we wanted a vision that provided common goals, not competing interests. As a K-12 school on one campus, there was opportunity for an educational alignment across the grades, yet what we had in practice was a hodgepodge of pedagogical practices – a collaborative inquiry model in high school (along with some AP and dual credit), an Expeditionary Learning model we kept trying to get off the ground in middle school, and a traditional elementary curriculum. Plus, all the various pet projects at each grade level. We needed a renewed academic vision that would provide unity schoolwide.
- Academic Accessibility – we wanted a vision that promoted high-quality education for everyone, not just the educational elites. Our current practice is to track students according to ability and while we do an excellent job of servicing our highest performing students, we have not historically provided the kind of engagement or support needed for reluctant learners and struggling students. We are a school that has always welcomed the educational haves and have-nots, but we have lacked equity in the way that the two groups have been served. We needed a renewed academic vision that prioritized learners of every ability.
- Academic Complexity – we wanted a vision that emphasized rigor over rote. We recognized that in the new economy of innovation, the traditional approach of rote memorization and recall will no longer serve students well (unless they become a Jeopardy! contestant.) It’s easy to talk about ‘soft skills’ and ‘21st-Century Learning’ but asking teachers to envision and articulate that for students while following a prescribed curriculum that fails to include any of these concepts in its materials has proven to be nothing more than wishful thinking. We needed a renewed academic vision for deeper learning that is imaginative and engaging.
- Academic Identity – we wanted a vision that would provide a cohesive understanding of who we are and what we do. As I described earlier, we have some Expeditionary Learning components, but we’re not an EL school. We offer AP, but we’re not a Capstone school. We use different models and programs, but none of them truly define who we are or what we are working toward. We needed a renewed academic vision that would give our staff and our community a clarifying message of what we do and why we do it.
- Academic Accountability – we wanted a vision that would provide high standards, not high praise. We hold dual accreditation with our Christian school association and a large, global accrediting body, but the truth is, the process provides very little accountability. When we were up for accreditation renewal in 2019, it was never a question of if we would be renewed, but only how high of a score we would receive. And while we did indeed earn an exemplary score and receive a lot of positive feedback, accreditation offered very little constructive criticism and didn’t reveal anything new despite the tremendous amount of time and effort it required. Accreditation feels like a minimum standard rather than the highest of expectations. We needed a renewed academic vision that was aspirational and would hold us accountable to the highest standards of teaching, learning, and school leadership.
During the visioning process, we spent time examining several models of Deeper Learning, but in the end, we chose International Baccalaureate because it satisfied our five main goals:
- Academic Unity – While IB is best known for its Diploma Programme in grades 11 & 12, IB also offers a Primary Years Programme (PYP) for grades pre-K through fifth and a Middle Years Programme (MYP) for grades six through ten. As an IB Continuum school, we can offer a comprehensive program across 15 grades, with common language, goals, skills, and expectations.
- Academic Accessibility – my own personal perception of IB prior to this journey was that it was a challenging and demanding program that only served academically gifted students who ended up stressed-out or burned-out by the workload. It doesn’t have to be that way. We have chosen to adopt a philosophy of ‘IB For All,’ a belief that everyone benefits from an IB education, while also recognizing that not everyone has to pursue an IB Diploma. But every student at our school will be in the IB programme.
- Academic Complexity – in grades K-10, IB is not a curriculum, but rather a framework. IB gives schools and teachers flexibility within the content areas while providing the framework that leads to more rigor and less rote. But even in grades 11 and 12, where there is more prescribed content for the subject areas, the assessments are designed to emphasize deeper learning.
- Academic Identity – In Florida, where we reside, IB is well-known and well-respected (though to a large degree also widely misunderstood.) For us, becoming an IB World School would further enhance our academic reputation within our community while also clearly communicating to our families and the broader community who we are and what we do.
- Academic Accountability – IB authorization is a long and challenging process. The renewal process every five years is equally rigorous. But we aren’t shying away from these demands, we are embracing them. After just one year of an initial three-year journey toward authorization, IB has already made us a better school in so many ways.
IB is not a Christian education or an American curriculum. But neither is it an anti-Christian education or an anti-American curriculum. Critics often make these claims. I can attest that we are not just a better school because of IB, we are a better Christian school. We have greater clarity and intentionality around our mission and vision as a Christian school than at any other time in our school’s history. All because of our engagement with IB.
Is International Baccalaureate the solution for every Christian school? Of course not. It checks the boxes that we created around unity, accessibility, complexity, identity, and accountability. Which makes it the right opportunity for us.
Jim Collins reminds us that, “Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great. We don’t have great schools, principally because we have good schools. Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life.”
Let’s not be content to have an academic vision that is good enough. Let’s pursue methods and models of deeper learning in our classrooms and in our schools. Let’s cultivate a vision that is hopeful, aspirational, and engaging. Let’s give our students our very best, no matter how hard it may be. They deserve nothing less.