Philadelphia Encourages Global Mindset Through International Baccalaureate Program

Kait Lavinder, for GPA -- In July 2000, Lower Merion’s Harriton High School became the third public school in Pennsylvania to provide the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma to its graduating seniors. Since its start, the program has grown so that this past year around 60 of the school’s 304 seniors were part of the IB. Next year, 61 rising juniors are entering the program.

Originating from a need for a neat and transferrable transcript, the IB program was created to aid students whose families frequently moved from country to country. Getting educated in the IB ensured a transcript that could be used internationally and could give international students an easy mechanism for applying to universities.

Although many mobile families still enroll their children in the IB, an increasing number of domestic students partake in the program every year. In one of Harriton High School’s IB mathematics classes, about half of the high schoolers were not born in the United States. Germany, France, Finland, and Norway are a few of the countries represented by the student population. Coordinator of Harriton’s IB Diploma Programme (DP) Tom O’Brien says the majority of the school’s IB students grew up in Lower Merion.

The IB now operates with a dual-purpose: to educate international students as part of a coherent learning system and to train young people as world citizens. The latter is the focus of North Philadelphia’s Pan American Academy Charter School. Five years ago, the nonprofit Congreso de Latinos Unidos recognized the lack of high quality education provided to North Philly’s Latino community. A dual-language Kindergarten through 8th grade institution adhering to the most preeminent standards possible was the solution. CEO Wanda Novales elaborates, “We strive to give our students the best possible education, and deliver an educational experience that is truly world-class...most children in this area would not have the opportunity to receive this elite education otherwise.”

An obvious match for Congreso’s and Pan American’s mission was the IB. Michael Clark spent 2 years in Bulgaria with the Peace Corps and is currently the Director of Strategic Initiatives at Pan American. He describes the IB: “It’s a recognized standard of excellence seal saying this is a really good school with high quality education.” That is why the Pan American family rejoiced when the IB certification for K - 5th grade (the Primary Years Programme, or PYP) became official this January. The school is the first elementary school in Philadelphia to offer an IB education.

Philadelphia’s fairly recent interest in the IB advances the city’s international reputation by attracting families from around the world. Harriton student Mats Terwiesch moved to the Greater Philadelphia area from Germany and expresses fondness toward Philly. He says he likes that in Philly he can engage with people who may hold differing viewpoints from his own: “In my neighborhood there’s a French and Japanese couple, two German households, and someone from the Czech Republic.”

Audrey Krumenacker, another international student in Harriton’s IB program, moved to Philly because of her father’s work. She seconds Terwiesch’s keenness for the city: “Almost immediately we went into the French community of Philly. But there were so many other international aspects of it, as well. I don’t think my parents had much trouble becoming members of the Philadelphia community.”

For an increasingly global world, the IB seems to be one of the best options. Emphasis placed on critical thinking and inquiry helps develop a global mindset. At Pan American, the 5th graders’ capstone project, “IB Exhibition,” requires students to identify one major challenge in their communities and propose a solution using the knowledge they have acquired through the IB education. O’Brien elaborates, “It’s definitely a perspective changing experience because it traces issues. It takes a central idea and then shows how that central idea applies in the students’ neighborhood where they live, in their city, in their country, and then globally. So it makes connections throughout that continuum.” Synthesizing data and experiences to form a more comprehensive outlook on the world is a major goal of the IB.

Harriton student Paavali Hannikainen from Finland proudly states that his critical thinking skills have been greatly strengthened through the IB because “the curriculum is extremely internationally diverse and promotes international thinking and looking at issues from multiple viewpoints.”

These skills are tested by Harriton’s senior projects. O’Brien explains that an extended essay with original research and a mandatory engagement component called CAS (Creativity, Action, Service) constitute the final assignment. In May, written exams covering an accumulation of material from the past 2 years of IB education act as the last assessment.

A rigorous workload aimed at creating global thinkers, the recognition of an IB diploma throughout countries all over the world, and the heightened interest in the IB from stationary students in America and other nations make the program a viable new standard of education. Clark believes hyper-connectivity is a mindset that should be taught across the board.

Greater Philadelphia’s growing acceptance of and excitement for the IB positions it as a global city. Other IB schools in the area include Central High School, Philadelphia High School for Girls, Northeast High School, and others.