By Amanda Eggert EBS Senior Editor

BIG SKY – Starting this fall, Lone Peak High School will join three other schools in the state offering students the option to graduate with an International Baccalaureate diploma, which meets more rigorous academic criteria than a standard state high school diploma.

LPHS was authorized cleared to offer the program earlier this spring. Big Sky School District Superintendant Dustin said it’s usually a three-year process, but the district applied for accelerated authorization.

The program involves two years of specialized study and students entering their junior year this fall will have the opportunity to graduate with an IB diploma the spring of 2019. Shipman estimates 75 percent of high school students will opt to receive an IB diploma.

According to its website, the International Baccalaureate is a nonprofit education foundation that was established in 1968 and helps students “develop the intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills need to live, learn and work in a rapidly globalizing world.”

Incoming Big Sky Chamber of Commerce CEO Candace Carr Strauss said BSSD’s transition to IB programming factored into her decision to relocate to Big Sky from Copenhagen, Denmark. Strauss’ 14-year-old daughter Madison and 12-year-old son Hunter are currently enrolled in Copenhagen International School, which is one of the original IB schools.

Strauss said she’s been impressed by the school’s emphasis on cultural exchange and its holistic approach to intellectual and personal growth and development. “I want my children to be global citizens in preparation of entering the global workforce,” she wrote in an email to EBS. “The IB Program is also highly recognized globally by institutions of higher education,” she added. An IB diploma essentially replaces the first year of college at many higher-education institutions.

Strauss said she’s noticed that her son and daughter engage with learning differently. “My children are no longer simply consumer of information, but instead analytical thinkers, applying what they learn to real-life situations everyday and utilizing modern-day technologies to do so.”

The academic structure is significantly different from a more traditional school, particularly in terms of the grading scale and testing, Struass said. “[There’s more emphasis] on the individual child’s improvement, and they’re provided more tools in their approach to learning.”

BSSD hired Marlo Mitchem to help the district implement IB curriculum and facilitate the diploma program. Mitchem, who started with BSSD last July, has taught at IB schools in Bahrain, Morocco, Germany, and Portland, Oregon. She says she wishes she’d had the opportunity to study in such a program when she was a student. College professors of former IB students have asked them, “How did you learn how to ask such hard questions?” Mitchem added.

“[IB students] really have the tools to chart their own path, anywhere they want in the world,” Mitchem said. “It’s what I want for my two children.”

Mithchem also noted that there’s significant emphasis on professional development for teachers, which is one of the reasons administrators sought to implement the program. At a Nov. 17, 2015, meeting hosted by BSSD administrators leading up to the school board’s vote to switch to IB, LPHS Principal Alex Ide said IB programming would help the district recruit students, and recruit and retain teachers.

IB diploma candidates at LPHS will take six foundational classes: English, Spanish (a second language is required), math, two science classes, and a course comparable to social studies called Individuals and Society.

Eventually, BSSD will implement the Primary Years Program for the district’s youngest students and then work toward authorization for the Middle Years Program, which involves students in sixth through 10th grades.

At the November 2015 town hall meeting, several parents expressed concern that students who struggle academically wouldn’t be accommodated under the IB approach.

Strauss said there’s significant support from the school for students with learning disabilities at Copenhagen International School and it’s done a good job dedicating resources to those students.

In addition to being the newest IB program in the state, LPHS will also be the smallest. All three schools that currently offer the program—Flathead High School in Kalispell, and Big Sky and Hellgate high schools in Missoula—are among the largest in Montana.

“It’s such a unique context here,” Mitchem said. “It’s a smaller contingency of people to educate and work with, so I think that’s an advantage.”

She also acknowledges there will be challenges. “Wherever you are in the world, implementing change is not always easy, but you have to be very considerate and thoughtful as you’re approaching change.”