In the days leading up to the new school year, two dozen teachers at Anasazi Elementary packed into a classroom to do some learning of their own.
The two-day workshop was part of the school’s plan to become an accredited International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme, which would make it just the sixth public school in the state of Arizona with that designation.
If the school receives accreditation, it will provide a much-needed identity to Anasazi and could also combat enrollment declines seen at the school and throughout the Scottsdale Unified School District.
The Primary Years Programme, or PYP, is one offering from Switzerland-based International Baccalaureate, or IB, that reaches over one million students in 146 countries.
The PYP program focuses on providing an international, student-driven approach to education that encourages creative thinking and problem solving.
“It’s a great thing to be able to provide our students with…a rigorous, challenging internationally-minded, globally-connected learning experience,” said Marianne McMurrin, a former SUSD principal with IB experience who came out of retirement to work as Anasazi’s PYP program coordinator.
The workshop featured two out-of-state IB trainers who, along with McMurrin, worked to help teachers understand International Baccalaureate’s concepts and goals and how they can implement them in the classroom.
Anasazi, which was accepted as a candidate school by International Baccalaureate, is now on a multi-year path to achieve the PYP status.
That process can take four years, but Principal Jennifer Waldron is hopeful the school can achieve it in three.
McMurrin said, based on what she has seen of the teachers and school, she believes the school will meet or exceed Waldron’s goal.
McMurrin knows a thing or two about the process, because she brought an IB program to Tempe Academy when she was principal there. The Scottsdale resident, who lives within walking distance of the Anasazi campus, was also a principal at Copper Ridge School in SUSD.
Even with that confidence, the Anasazi community has a lot of work ahead of it over the next several years.
Following the school’s successful application, Waldron and teachers must now learn and adjust to the IB curriculum and guidelines while also helping students make that adjustment.
Waldron said she was grateful all stakeholders are on board.
“And that makes all the difference in going through this accreditation because it is so in-depth and rigorous and a shift for teachers and how they plan and facilitate and think as they teach the kids,” Waldron said.
Waldron held numerous meetings with parents, teachers, school administration and the district to go over the details of the plan.
Fifth grade teacher Candice Moses was on a committee early on in the process that met with Waldron.
“(Principal Waldron) presented it to us in a very organized way, which made it a lot easier for us to comprehend,” Moses said.
A survey conducted by Waldron prior to applying for accreditation found that 24 of 26 teachers were fully committed to bringing an IB program to Anasazi.
Another two teachers were unsure due to the challenges of implementing the program while also meeting Arizona’s statutory requirements.
No teachers were against the idea, Waldron said.
“I think it’s really exciting,” Kindergarten teacher Julie Trappen said. “It is a little overwhelming, but I’m very much looking forward to how this is going to change our school for the better.”
Students in driver’s seat
Why would Waldron, who just took over the Anasazi campus last year, take on such a challenge so early in her tenure?
“We all got into education I would hope to do what’s best for kids and do what’s best for students,” Waldron said. “That’s what we’re passionate about, and so why place limitations on how we facilitate lessons?”
Waldron said she believes IB’s focus on problem solving and teaching concepts instead of topics is best suited to prepare students to succeed in an ever-changing world and for jobs that do not even exist yet.
“So we need to teach them the skills to be critical thinkers, to be creative, to problem solve with a global impact,” Waldron said.
“The students are in the driver’s seat,” McMurrin said. “In other words, the teachers start to make a call with just a little bit of background planning, but once they introduce these concepts and transdisciplinary themes to their students, that’s when the inquiry starts.”
Fifth grade teacher Courtney Wilson said that teachers are excited to introduce the new program to students.
“It’s going to be very student-driven where teachers can facilitate the conversation and kind of the deeper thinking involved with projects and assignments and things like that,” Wilson said.
Waldron also said the PYP program is a natural fit at Anasazi, because the school is a part of the district’s Desert Mountain Learning Community that has a long history with IB programs.
Anasazi is a natural feeder school to Mountainside Middle School, a candidate school for the IB Middle Years Programme, which in turn feeds into Desert Mountain High School.
Desert Mountain has offered the IB Diploma Programme to students across the district since 1999.
A solution to enrollment slide
Waldron said she was challenged by Superintendent John Kriekard to find solutions to declining enrollment when she took over the school.
When she pitched the IB idea, he was on board.
“It doesn’t surprise me that Principal Waldron is pursuing the IB’s rigorous requirements with determination,” Kriekard said. “She is totally committed to raising the bar for our students, and we are excited about what this opportunity offers Anasazi.”
The district has committed to providing $301,055 between 2018 and 2023 to cover costs associated with the adoption, including training, application fees, certification fees and staffing.
That financial assistance was a piece of enrollment growth plans adopted by Anasazi and three other schools in the district last year.
At the time the plan was approved, Anasazi’s enrollment was at 378 students, meaning the first year 10 percent bump would help it achieve a 400-student goal.
There is some evidence that the IB program could attract more families to Anasazi and keep others from leaving.
In a presentation to the governing board last November, Waldron said she analyzed where the 138 students who left the school heading into that year ended up. Of the total, 41 ended up at area charter schools run by Basis or Great Hearts Academies—two charter chains that focus on academic rigor.
“I know that parents leave schools for basically two things: the customer care that’s provided at a school and the perception of rigor available at the school,” Waldron said to the school board.
“Perception” is key.
Anasazi is already an overachieving school by most academic metrics.
According to the Arizona Department of Education’s letter grade system, Anasazi is an A-rated school and received 89.45 of a possible 90 points on the department’s rubric, which includes performance and growth on state standardized tests.
For comparison, Basis Scottsdale, located two miles from Anasazi, is also an A-rated school and earned 87.24 out of 90 points.
Waldron also believes IB will improve public perception of the academic rigor provided at Anasazi.
“We know we have the academics there, and we believe IB will continue to enhance the rigor in a competitive market where other schools are perceived as more rigorous,” Waldron told the board.
When speaking to the board, Waldron did not shy away from the potential marketing impacts of IB accreditation.
Though the school cannot label itself an IB school until it is accredited, informal conversations with parents has shown there is significant interest in the community, Waldron said.
One only needs to look at Mountainside, the nearby middle school, for evidence of the IB effect.
Though the school is still in the candidate phase, it saw its enrollment tick up slightly between 2018 and 2019 following several years of declines, according to a district study.
Recently-retired Mountainside Principal Terri Kellen told the board in 2018 that the bump was due to the IB program.
“One-hundred percent; it’s the reason why,” Kellen said.
Waldron said she has also seen an up-tick in enrollment at Anasazi heading into the new school year, though it is too early to release official numbers.
Waldron said the school is also seeing interest from international students, with kids coming from India, Singapore and Saudi Arabia.
“So we’re already seeing kind of this international shift without even getting accredited yet,” she said. “The word is out.”