DULUTH, Ga. – Notre Dame Academy, a Marist-sponsored school in Duluth, recently became the first Catholic elementary school in the United States to be accredited to teach the International Baccalaureate primary years program designed for children 3 to 12 years old.
At Notre Dame, the International Baccalaureate courses are taught in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. The school serves students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade on two campuses.
The International Baccalaureate Organization – founded in Geneva in 1968 – developed an academically rigorous curriculum to offer the program’s high school graduates a diploma that is recognized by universities around the world. The organization has since expanded its mission by making its programs available to students of all ages.
In the United States, 670 high schools, 294 middle schools and 163 elementary schools are accredited to teach the IB curriculum, according to the organization’s Web site at www.ibo.org. Of this group, there are at least 17 Catholic high schools, one Catholic middle school – St. Mary’s Catholic School in Richmond, Va. – and one Catholic elementary school using the program.
Lynette Wilson, coordinator for the IB program at Notre Dame Academy, said school officials had been interested in offering the program since the school opened in 2005.
The initial vision was to establish a Catholic school with a global perspective, she told The Georgia Bulletin, archdiocesan newspaper of Atlanta.
To gain accreditation with the International Baccalaureate Organization, teachers took part in two years of training at regional and on-site workshops and the school received a site visit.
Wilson stressed that the program’s mission – to educate the students intellectually, spiritually, physically and emotionally – dovetails with what the Catholic school strives to achieve.
The intention of creating global awareness at Notre Dame Academy permeates almost every subject. Many classes are interdisciplinary, allowing the students to take things they learned with them to other classes.
In a recent unit on refugees, the Notre Dame fifth-graders went beyond looking at a list of facts, figures and pictures in a book to learning more about refugees firsthand.
Each student was asked to come up with one aspect he or she would like to learn about the refugees. Some were interested in the traditions of families who fled their homeland, while others wanted to know more about their sports and recreation.
The students were then put into groups based on their interests to research their topics. Some students interviewed refugees in the area and filmed their experiences.
At the end of the unit, the fifth-graders created a large display to share what they learned with the rest of the school.
Notre Dame Academy students also take part in service projects with local agencies such as the Duluth Co-op which provides food to local residents. The students help by collecting food and bringing it to the organization.
“They are really connected to the outside world,” said Wilson.
In addition, teachers keep parents well informed about what is happening in the classroom, she said. The instructors meet regularly to discuss what they are teaching, and the parents have taken a strong role in supporting the school.
“The parents’ community is very large,” said Wilson. “They put in so much time and effort to guide the students.”
In a globally minded school, it helps that several students come from international families, with parents from China and India and different parts of the United States.
When the fifth-graders move on to Notre Dame Academy’s middle school, the middle school teachers say they are ready to meet the IB students with fresh and challenging ways to build upon the education they already received.
John Finley, principal of the middle school, calls the IB program more of a methodology than a curriculum and said the middle school enhances what the students have already learned.
Having the IB program at the school is a “huge compliment to our teachers,” said Debra Orr, Notre Dame Academy’s president. “We can say we have a good academic program and now it is validated.”