A wall of clocks inside the Charter Oak International Academy shows the local time for West Hartford, Puerto Rico, Hanoi, Nairobi and Kolkata, India.
In the main office, T-shirts are sold with the school emblem on front and "Citizen of the World" printed across the back. Two years after Charter Oak signed up to become one of Connecticut's few elementary schools with an International Baccalaureate curriculum, a hint of what that means is in Jen Dolan's fifth-grade classroom.
The topic one recent morning was renewable energy. Dolan's students had just read an article about a young African who built a windmill with wood and junkyard materials to power his family's home in a Malawian village.
"What kind of person does this?" Dolan asked.
"A risk-taker?" replied Zahra Smith, 10.
"Why do you think he's a risk-taker?"
"Because he built something and never quit," Zahra said.
"He's determined," volunteered a boy. "Because he made something out of nothing."
Caring, patient, strong, "a thinker" -- around the class, kids offered up attributes that school leaders want them to emulate. Then they began analyzing a newspaper story about brothers who installed a wind turbine at their New Haven business. Dolan posed a question on the board: "How does a person's beliefs guide their actions?"
To answer, the students first had to plow through words in the story such as "confluence" and "zephyrs," difficult for any fifth-grader. A few went to a dictionary and all seemed to carry on. Only later did Dolan reveal that about half of her class receives special education services, including help for reading.
"I have very few students who are on grade level," she said, "but you really wouldn't know it."
Of the four schools in the state with an authorized International Baccalaureate program for elementary grades, two are in Greenwich. The International Baccalaureate Organization, based in Geneva, Switzerland, promotes ideals ranging from brainy curiosity to empathy; its program is developed up to the high school level and is known for its rigor in all parts of the world.
But Charter Oak's push to be certified as an IB World School -- authorization is anticipated this fall or early winter -- is less about prestige than defeating low expectations. Test scores through the years have not reached district and often state averages. A quarter of the students speak a primary language other than English, and about 40 percent are from low-income households. Eight of 10 kids are identified as black, Hispanic or Asian, the highest minority population in the West Hartford school system.
This spring, headed into the standardized Connecticut Mastery Test, there was no sense of dread, Charter Oak Principal Mary Thompson said. Regular in-class assessments have shown improvement. Student confidence has been "noteworthy."
"They'll give you what you expect of them, and I think that's what's been different," Thompson said. "I roam all day, just sitting in classes, taking notes on things I see. .... Learning is taking place, and IB is just an opportunity to see what children can give you."
'Who We Are'
Charter Oak's walls are covered with traits of the IB "learner profile," which the Geneva organization considers central to its "education of the whole person" on intellectual, emotional, personal and social levels. Those attributes are posted throughout the International School at Dundee, too, across the state in Greenwich:
Knowledgeable. Principled. Open-minded. Balanced. Reflective. Communicator. Inquirer. Caring. Thinker. Risk-taker.
Easing overcrowding in the Riverside section of Greenwich was the reason that Dundee opened in 2000 as the first magnet school in Greenwich, Principal Teresa Ricci said. But drawing families from other schools required a tempting magnet theme, and so a committee of parents, educators and community members convened to choose one.
"They wanted a rigorous curriculum, they wanted character education, they wanted a foreign language," Ricci said earlier this year. "So when they looked at this list and looked at all the educational reforms out there, the one that closely resembled their perfect, ideal elementary school was the IB program."
Teachers at the private International School of Geneva, founded in 1968, created the "international-minded" curriculum to prepare teenagers for college. The diploma program became recognized at top universities, and was expanded in the mid-1990s to include younger students in middle and primary years. Programs now exist at 2,973 schools in 139 countries, according to the International Baccalaureate Organization.
Along with the learner profile, the organization advocates a "program of inquiry" that it believes will develop people who are responsible and lifelong learners. Academic subjects are framed through questions that lean heavily on the self: Who we are, where we are in time and place, how we express ourselves, how the world works, how we organize ourselves and how we share the planet.
For Dundee kindergartners, the last inquiry involves a partnership with the New York Botanical Garden and studying the effect of plants on people, and vice versa. First-graders, learning about how people organize, are taught about major world religions; through the framework of time and place, second-graders delve into the reasons for migration and the impact of immigrants.
When Dundee became authorized as an IB World School in 2003, the first elementary school in Connecticut with that distinction, there were only 24 other schools in the United States and Canada with an IB program for elementary grades, Ricci said.
Now, 219 schools in the U.S. have completed the two- to four-year process. Worldwide, 655 such schools have been authorized, up from 210 in April 2005, said Sandra Coyle, a spokeswoman for the international organization.
They include the magnet Rogers International School in Stamford; the Whitby School in Greenwich, a private pre-K to Grade 8 school just certified for both the primary and middle years programs; and New Haven's King/Robinson International Baccalaureate Magnet School, which also has the IB curriculum through Grade 8.
There are also a half-dozen schools in the state that are either candidates -- such as Charter Oak -- or are in the initial stages of developing an elementary-level program, Coyle said.
In Greenwich, the 375-student Dundee school is among the most diverse of the town's 11 public elementary schools and ranks in the district's top four in reading, writing and math on the Connecticut Mastery Test, Ricci said. Students are taught Spanish as a second language from day one. Dundee's main office is labeled "La oficina."
"One of the things I often hear from parents is that our students seem more mature," she said. "And I don't think, emotionally, they are more mature than another student. But I think they are more serious about their learning."
'A Remarkable Place'
Fewer Charter Oak students are being sent to the office these days. Thirteen referrals were written up in February, for instance, down from 24 the same month in 2008.
Thompson, the principal, said that discipline problems are "almost nonexistent because the kids are engaged."
"We talk about learner profiles -- they get it," said Dolan, who has seen behavior improve in the five years she has taught at Charter Oak. "They understand they're supposed to be caring, they understand they're supposed to think about their actions."
But whether the International Baccalaureate program can help address more serious issues might tell only over time.
Charter Oak and the nearby Smith School of Science, Math and Technology, with 70 percent minority enrollment, have been labeled as racially unbalanced under Connecticut law because of their disparity with town elementary schools in wealthier neighborhoods. To correct the imbalance -- West Hartford school officials consider it a "moral" rather than legal obligation -- the district created magnet programs at Charter Oak and Smith more than a decade ago to attract white students from throughout town.
Charter Oak adopted a "global studies" theme and began teaching K-5 Spanish when the idea was still novel in the district. Magnet applications waned, though, and now three-quarters of the magnet students who enroll at Charter Oak are minority.
School administrators view International Baccalaureate as a major draw for families who might have overlooked Charter Oak in the past. They also hope it can dent the achievement gap that has dogged the town as it has grown more diverse.
At the mostly white Norfeldt Elementary School in the northwest section, 92 percent of fifth-graders met the goal in reading on last year's Connecticut Mastery Test. At Charter Oak in southeast West Hartford, 47 percent did so.
In the past two years, as many area school systems have cut new initiatives from their budgets, the district has invested about $80,000 in IB teacher training, materials and fees. Two Republican school board members sought at a meeting in April to suspend implementation of the program for a year to save $30,000 in the 2010-11 budget. After one of them questioned IB's effectiveness, Superintendent Karen List had the last word.
"I will tell you that walking through the school these days, it is a remarkable place developing real learners through a program that teachers have embraced to a point I have never seen before," she said.
List has envisioned a "premier" school at Charter Oak, with a new, bigger building and the International Baccalaureate curriculum as its anchor.
Those are long-term, lofty, multimillion-dollar dreams.
In the meantime, Charter Oak has some fresh paint and donated perennials, which parents, students and teachers planted around the 81-year-old building a few weeks ago.
"Everyone's on the same page now -- it took a while to even figure out what it means, the IB," said PTO President Laury Currier, who has three children attending the school as magnet students. "I'm excited to see where it goes."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun