Forty-plus community members consider changes to BSSD’s academic program on Nov. 17, at one of several focus groups BSSD administrators are holding as they re-imagine the district’s future. PHOTO BY AMANDA EGGERT

By Amanda Eggert

EBS Staff Writer

BIG SKY – Focus group discussion between Big Sky School District representatives and Big Sky community members at a Nov. 17 meeting centered on the International Baccalaureate program, a rigorous k-12 academic agenda recognized by universities around the world.

BSSD administrators and board members are considering a switch to the IB program to meet many of the objectives outlined in a strategic plan draft that will help them shape the district’s future.

The steering committee charged with drafting the strategic plan presented key components to a group of 40-plus parents, school board members, teachers and administrators at the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center. Afterward, they answered questions and solicited input from those in attendance.

While a number of issues and proposed changes were discussed at the meeting, by and large questions and commentary focused on the IB program.

“[The International Baccalaureate] does pretty much what the Big Sky community wants,” said Skip Kotkins of the education-consulting firm Carney Sandoe and Associates, “It integrates academics, experiential international worldview, and 21st century skills – not just learning math times tables and learning how to spell, but critical thinking and problem solving.”

This fall, Kotkins extrapolated data from 731 survey responses and meetings with more than 150 Big Sky community members into a document the steering committee is using to shape BSSD’s strategic plan. Big Sky principal Alex Ide said the district’s last such plan was drafted seven years ago, and to his knowledge had not been updated since.

Two things about the process stood out to Kotkins, he said: the high level of community participation, and a “great deal of consistency” in terms of what Big Sky envisions for its school system.

Superintendant Dustin Shipman said an IB diploma could effectively replace the first year of college by granting its recipient college-level credits and admission into a second year honors program at Montana State University, for example.

Although all students might not elect to take the challenging test for an IB diploma, they all stand to benefit from IB’s learning model, said school board chair, Loren Bough.

If the IB program is adopted, all graduating seniors would receive Lone Peak High School diplomas, but would have the option of earning an IB diploma as well.

Language arts teacher Patty Hamblin and second grade teacher Brittany Shirley recently visited two of the state’s four school systems with an IB program in place. They came away from their Missoula visit in strong support of the plan.

“The more we learn about [the IB], the more excited we get about it, “ said Hamblin. “This is something that encompasses everything we want to be. We have administrators that have experience in this, it’s going to make us better professionals, [and] the kids are going to be more engaged. I mean why wouldn’t we go down this road?”

Principal Alex Ide said he believes the IB program holds strong appeal for students, parents, and teachers, and both he and Shipman have worked with it before. “It’s really an opportunity for us to recruit students, to recruit teachers, to retain teachers,” Ide said.

While many parents expressed interest in the program, a number of concerns emerged. Several parents said they want assurance the transition will be smooth if the program is adopted, especially given the changes the district has undergone the past two years.

Others were concerned about grades and the impact of higher academic standards on students who struggle academically. Shipman said support systems would be in place to give the program the best-possible start and address individual student needs.

Timing-wise, Shipman said in the best-case scenario, this year’s ninth graders would have the option to graduate with an IB diploma.

Other items touched on during the meeting included uniform enforcement of attendance policies; the stretched-thin student advising and counseling services; accommodations for a growing number of second language English learners; and streamlined communication between administrators and community members.

The eight-person steering committee will meet at the end of November to discuss the input they received from Nov.17 community focus group and the Nov. 18 school board focus group.

The committee will make changes to the draft and present it to the board, which will have final approval. Ultimately, the goal is to turn the plan into something with “action steps, outcomes, and accountability strands,” Shipman said.

A draft of the plan is available on BSSD’s website