Going global with International Baccalaureate and dual language

J.L. Long students carry flags of the world: Photo courtesy of Dallas ISD

J.L. Long students carry flags of the world:
Photo courtesy of Dallas ISD

On a sticky summer evening, with parking already scarce on Lowest Greenville, mothers with babies strapped to their chests and fathers with preschoolers in tow made their way to Blind Butcher’s patio.

The Vickery Place Neighborhood Association had organized the social hour, designed to introduce families to Robert E. Lee Elementary. It wasn’t their first introduction; Vickery Place is zoned to Lee, so any parents living in the neighborhood already knew of the school.

Lee has been plagued by a negative reputation among neighborhood families for years, dating back at least as far as 2004 when families zoned to Stonewall Jackson Elementary, some of whom lived closer to Lee, fought to keep their boundaries untouched and remain at the Blue Ribbon school. Efforts since then to re-engage the middle-class homeowners who live on Lee’s surrounding streets have come up short.

Now, however, Lee is among the East Dallas schools undergoing a renaissance of sorts, and both the Vickery Place association and enthusiastic Lee parents are working to evangelize their neighbors. The informal setting of a happy hour at a hip Greenville restaurant made proselytizing a bit easier, as did Lee’s two newest educational attributes: dual language and International Baccalaureate.

On their own, these two programs are titillating to educated, middle-class Dallas families. Together, they form a kind of educational pièce de résistance. And in our neighborhood, not just Lee but also William Lipscomb Elementary in Old East Dallas will offer both programs starting this fall.

Dual language at both schools began years ago with neighborhood parents making the case. Roughly one-fourth of Lee’s students and one-half of Lipscomb’s are native Spanish speakers, allowing for two-way dual language classes in which a combination of native Spanish and English speakers learns material in both languages. Studies show the positive benefits of such learning, parents argued, so why not make it happen?

At Lee, the program came to fruition in fall 2013 with a single kindergarten class. They are entering second-grade together this fall, with first-graders and new crop of kindergartners on their heels. At Lipscomb, the inaugural two-way dual language kindergarten class launches this fall.

“Parents had approached these topics before with a different executive director and a different principal, and really got nowhere,” says Roxanne Cheek, Lipscomb’s current principal. “This a huge victory for the neighborhood to see Lipscomb as a viable option.”

Families in the Junius Heights, Munger Place and Swiss Avenue neighborhoods organized under the Old East Dallas Early Childhood PTA in 2008, as parents of young children began returning to these areas. These families have been successful in campaigning for changes at Lipscomb. Cheek, who became Lipscomb’s principal in fall 2013, credits parents for the school’s new direction along with Tracie Fraley, executive director of Woodrow Wilson High School and the schools that feed into it, including Lee and Lipscomb.

With Lee and Lipscomb offering both dual language classrooms and IB programs, it creates a continuum for students when they move on to J.L. Long Middle School and to Woodrow, both IB schools with dual language offerings. It also gives families two more “choice schools,” Cheek says, part of Fraley’s vision to make all of Woodrow and Long’s elementary schools desirable to neighborhood parents, and allow them to make a choice that fits their family. Lee and Lipscomb both have room for transfer students; Cheek says she received applications from 10 to 20 based on the IB program, and another 10 to 15 who are coming to Lipscomb from Spanish House Immersion School.

East Dallas families are more familiar than most with IB because of its implementation and surrounding buzz at Long and Woodrow. Still, the overall idea of creating “global thinkers, global learners” is a bit esoteric, and even if a rigorous IB diploma track at secondary schools makes sense, boiling that down to an elementary level can be mind-bending.

The misconception, Cheek says, is that because it’s “international,” students are learning about the world.

“It’s not just, ‘We’re going to learn about Africa today,’ ” Cheek says, though Africa may work its way into the curriculum. “The big difference between ‘normal’ or ‘traditional’ elementary schools is that everything is trans-disciplinary. We’re always trying to find ways to connect and integrate curriculum.”

IB for elementary students is not about the content being taught; it’s about learning those things in context. For example, second-grade students might study what makes up a community, looking at the difference between rural, urban and suburban communities (social studies), graphing those differences (math), asking how different organisms depend on a community (science) or how the environment impacts our settlement patterns (science and social studies) and then journaling or writing a song about it (language arts) or looking up questions on an iPad (technology) and so on — all while focusing on a single topic.

“This is going against the grain. People in schools are so prone to go straight to that standardized testing,” Cheek says. “We’re saying this is going to be more beneficial than isolating the learning.

“These are things all teachers want to teach because they’re meaningful. This is the real world.”

In addition, IB adds a foreign language class to each school’s elective rotations, adding it to music, physical education and the like. Similarly, French and Mandarin coursework is, or soon will be, part of Long and Woodrow’s IB curriculum. At Lee, students will learn French, and at Lipscomb, they considered Mandarin, but the community felt that Spanish would be a better option; that way even students not in enrolled in the dual language program would build a bilingual foundation.

Parents are still a bit unclear on what exactly IB looks like but seem excited about the changes.

“We’re talking about more than knowing things just for knowing things’ sake,” says Chris Widell, a Lee dad, at the recent Blind Butcher social hour.

“It’s more real,” echoed fellow dad Luke Rice, “and it’s explicitly community minded. It applies to all the kids at the school but also to the families. More parental involvement is encouraged and expected.”

And that’s the icing on the IB cake for families who have spent years working to build their school communities.

See all 9 reasons to maintain hope in Dallas ISD

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