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International Baccalaureate slowly gaining in Massachusetts

Seniors Dino Bulic and Siobhan Glynn during an IB history class at Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden on Sept. 27.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Seniors Dino Bulic and Siobhan Glynn during an IB history class at Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden on Sept. 27.

A Framingham elementary school wants to follow the lead of schools in Brockton and Malden and adopt the International Baccalaureate program, a teaching method that is little known in Massachusetts but has gained popularity in other parts of the country because of its focus on academic rigor.

Founded in Switzerland in 1968, International Baccalaureate helps schools develop course work that emphasizes writing, broad themes and inquiry, and world cultures, culminating in the senior year of high school with exams that, like Advanced Placement tests, can earn credits at some colleges.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Gordon Bradford teaches an IB class at Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden on Sept. 27.

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While proving particularly popular in California, Florida, and Texas, and used by nearly 3,500 schools in 143 countries, IB programs have been slow to catch on in Massachusetts, where they are offered in only 14 schools.

But that may be changing. Framingham’s Woodrow Wilson Elementary , with MCAS scores in the bottom 20th percentile statewide, is one of six schools in Massachusetts that have been granted candidate status by the International Baccalaureate Organization, fulfilling the first step for joining the program.

The Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden, Brockton High School, and Joseph Plouffe Academy in Brockton are among the schools already participating in it.

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“We’re excited about this,” said John Maynard, vice principal at Woodrow Wilson, where 85 percent of the children are considered bilingual. “We’re going to bring a world-class education to our students.”

After three fourth-grade teachers piloted an IB unit on migration last year, the school became a candidate school last month, and administrators hope to implement the program for all students within a few years.

“It was a lot of work, but we loved it so much, and the enthusiasm the kids showed, it just made teaching so much fun for everybody,” said Heather Soldano, one of the teachers.

Though public schools that adopt IB programs must still administer MCAS exams, their classes are less about memorization and multiple choice and more about discussion. For example, Woodrow Wilson’s students were asked to read a historical account by someone who relocated to a new home out of necessity, and then find their own meaning in the text.

“I see that the biggest difference is a bigger emphasis on inquiry,’’ said Claire Lowe, another one of the pilot course’s teachers. “They’re not just repeating what we give them or filling in a worksheet.”

Mystic Valley Regional Charter in Malden offers the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, which is for 11th- and 12th-grade students.

About 148 juniors and seniors at Mystic Valley are taking IB classes this year. Of those, 30 are trying for the IB diploma, which is awarded to students who complete courses in six subject areas, community service, a 4,000-word research paper, and other requirements.

Mystic Valley had considered offering Advanced Placement classes, but decided the International Baccalaureate program was superior, said Gordon Bradford, the school’s IB coordinator and history department chairman.

On a recent afternoon, seniors in a Mystic Valley classroom were analyzing political cartoons published in Germany and Italy during the lead-up to World War I. The questions came fast and furious as Bradford grilled students about depictions of aggression, and clues the cartoons offered about international perspectives.

For a few minutes, it seemed like every answer from a student was met with another “Why” from Bradford.

“I get e-mails all the time about how easy college is’’ by comparison, said Bradford.

Taking an IB or Advanced Placement class can result in college credit and impress college admissions officers, but the AP program, administered by the College Board organization, is far more well known. More than 18,000 schools worldwide offer AP classes, articipate in the AP program, , and almost one-third of high school seniors in the United States last year took at least one AP exam.

Brandeis University is among the institutions that offer offers offers credits for both IB and AP exams, said Irene Widugiris, in the registrar’s office. She said she sees more students with AP credits, but the IB program has become “more and more visible” in recent years.

Sharon Wolder, associate principal at Brockton High, said IB classes are less focused on final exams. “The type of education the kids get is different because it starts out in their junior year,” she said. “By the time they get to their senior year, kids really are able to do their own research and do presentations at a high level, and they have a global understanding.”

While IB classes at the high school level are generally geared for high-achieving students, proponents say the elementary and middle school programs can work for all students, including those with special needs and English-language learners.

“One of the main ideas of IB is we should ask big open-ended questions that allow for many different answers,” said David Brewster, who coordinates the IB program at Joseph Plouffe Academy in Brockton, a public school for grades 6 to 8.

An English class, for example, might ask why stories end the way they do. More advanced students might ponder that question in “Romeo and Juliet,” but even students whose primary language is not English can weigh the same issue using a simpler text, Brewster said.

“For me, it’s best practices put into action,” said Michelle Nessralla, Plouffe Academy’s principal. “It’s teachers collaborating on a daily basis to talk about the curriculum, to talk about student work.”

But the program has been slow to catch on in Massachusetts. Schools are required to complete a lengthy application process, including a feasibility study, professional development, site visit, and fees.

“It’s a tremendous amount of work,’’ Brewster said. “It may be more of a risk and expense than some schools are willing to take.”

Mystic Valley’s Bradford, who has taught IB in other countries, said the program requires commitment from teachers and administrators. “I think it can be a helpful model for struggling schools, but there’s nothing magic about it,” he said. “You turn a school around by that basic commitment.”

Woodrow Wilson educators say they are ready.

“We’re going down this road primarily because we need to develop a different educational philosophy, a different educational process, and some different ways of how to meet the academic needs of the students in this building,” said Robin Welch, the school’s principal.

Lisa Kocian can be reached at lkocian@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeLisaKocian.
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