Future Grim for IB Middle Years Program at Pierson

The main entrance to Pierson Middle-High School.
The main entrance to Pierson Middle-High School.

By Christine Sampson

After almost four years spent preparing for the possible extension of the International Baccalaureate program to grades six through ten at Pierson Middle-High School, the effort appears to have been mostly shelved for now.

During Monday’s Sag Harbor School Board meeting, administrators broke down the pros and cons of bringing in the IB “Middle Years program” (MYP) — and although there were several on both sides, Pierson principal Jeff Nichols recommended to the school board that the district cease pursuing the formal program because the negatives seemed to outweigh the positives.

At the heart of the issue are the changes the IB parent organization made to the MYP itself over the course of the time Pierson was preparing to implement it. The organization added a series of mandatory tests for the students each year, which would be on top of the New York State standardized tests for students in grades six, seven and eight and the Regents exams for the older students. Sag Harbor superintendent Katy Graves said she was concerned about the testing piece.

“We worked hard to get that opt-out rate down because it does give us good information,” she said. “They’re not ready for high stakes testing until about ninth grade. If parents viewed this as high stakes testing and opted their children out of the assessments, then we wouldn’t qualify [for MYP]. We’d be throwing good money out. Our investment wouldn’t be worth it.”

Among other concerns, school officials said, was that the MYP would cost about $250,000 to fully implement and it would place additional demands on teachers’ contractual obligations.

The IB program also added a mandatory “personal project” to the MYP, and required that a set of curriculum guidelines called the “approaches to learning” be expanded in a way that Pierson administrators found to be unsustainable. The MYP also would have totally upended the way teachers graded students, going from the traditional scale of one to 100 to a scale of one to eight.

Pierson assistant principal Brittany Miaritis said the MYP curriculum units also seemed less flexible than the current Pierson curriculum. She said she wanted to preserve the teachers’ ability to be more creative in their own individual ways.

“MYP gives examples of what they want to see in your classroom,” she said. “Good teachers think outside the box. We don’t want to stifle it.”

The original goal, Mr. Nichols said, was to encourage participation in and preparation for the high school IB diploma program by adding the MYP for grades six through ten. The IB diploma program is a rigorous two-year track that starts in the junior year.

“My opinion at this point — and the board can decide which way to go — is that there are many more negatives now than there were two years ago with the changes,” Mr. Nichols said. “At the end of the day, the lens that I’m looking at is are we able to increase participation and ramp up effectively to the diploma program without the MYP. The answer is yes, we can prepare them, and, in my opinion, no, we are not at a disadvantage.”

Ms. Miaritis said the process of applying to become a MYP school had yielded some positive benefits, such as encouraging more communication and planning among teachers within specific grade levels, within subject areas, and also between the disciplines. The teachers did receive the training necessary to become a MYP school, including the ideal of introducing more global perspectives in the classroom, which will benefit both the teachers and the students, Ms. Miaritis said.

School board member Chris Tice asked Mr. Nichols if it was possible to borrow some of the MYP’s positive guiding principles without fully implementing the program. He said yes, and that is, in fact, what he is suggesting.

“That recommendation also comes with the added consideration that the majority of our diploma-level teachers teach middle school level classes,” he said. “They’re able to start to ramp up at the middle school level. The fact that we’re a six-to-twelve building and the staff is shared gives us flexibility in terms of the decision-making process.”

More information and a formal school board decision are expected in July or August when the results of the high school IB exams come in and the discussion continues.