Published April 23, 2009
The Notre Dame Academy fourth-grader sits in front of a computer eagerly participating in a research project. The young man, Jackson deLeede, is working on a class “Web quest” on the Civil War.
“It’s really fun,” he said, trying to keep his eyes on the screen and remaining focused. “I get to learn about things I didn’t know.”
The Web quest is one of many tools Notre Dame Academy, an independent Catholic school in Duluth, uses to help children take advantage of all of the resources they have to learn about themselves, their faith, their country and the world at large.
It is also one of the many reasons that Notre Dame Academy was recently honored with accreditation from the International Baccalaureate Organization, becoming the first Catholic elementary school in the country to be accredited to teach IB’s Primary Years Programme (PYP).
The program is designed for children 3 to 12 years old. At Notre Dame, which is a Marist-sponsored school, the PYP is in place for pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. Notre Dame serves students from pre-K3 through eighth grade on two campuses.
Lynette Wilson, PYP coordinator for the school, said the pursuit of IB accreditation was something that the school was interested in since its inception in August 2005. She has been involved with the school from the beginning, first coming on board as a second-grade teacher.
The vision was a Catholic school with a global perspective, she said.
To gain the accreditation, teachers took part in two years of rigorous training at regional and on-site workshops. An IBO visit to the school this past fall was the final step.
The program emphasizes an international education and an inquiry-based approach to teaching and learning. Learning is divided into units of inquiry.
Wilson stressed the importance of learning and how all who are involved with NDA are learners, even the teachers. This is depicted by the Learner Profile, a visual aid posted all around the school reminding the students and teachers of the focus of NDA. She said the school hopes to create lifelong learners.
But it is more than just memorizing facts from a textbook. The leaders and teachers of NDA are dedicated to giving the students a complete education—intellectual, spiritual, physical and emotional.
Their mission lines up well with that of the PYP program, as well as that of the Catholic Church, said Wilson.
“(The PYP) focuses on the total growth of the developing child, touching hearts as well as minds and encompassing social, physical, emotional and cultural needs in addition to academic development,” the IBO Web site states. “The PYP draws on research and best practice from a range of national systems with a wealth of knowledge and experience from international schools to create a relevant, engaging, challenging and significant educational framework for all children.”
The intention of creating global awareness in NDA permeates almost every subject. Many are interdisciplinary, allowing the students to take things they learned with them to other classes.
The fifth-graders at NDA recently finished a unit on refugees. Instead of just looking at a list of facts, figures and pictures in a book, the students became involved in a quest to learn more about those classified as refugees from their home countries.
The students were each asked to come up with one aspect they would like to learn about the refugees. Some were interested in the traditions of families who fled their homeland, while others wanted to know more about their sports and recreation.
The students were then put into groups based on their interests and researched their topics. Some students were able to interview refugees in the area, and others filmed their experience meeting and talking with the refugees.
At the end of the unit, the fifth-graders created a large display, now hanging in the hall, to share the knowledge they gained with the rest of the school.
NDA values service projects, giving its students the opportunity to work with local agencies for positive causes, such as the Duluth Co-op, which provides food to local residents. Not only do the students gather food, but they take it to the organization themselves so they get the full experience.
“They are really connected to the outside world,” said Wilson.
The communication with the outside world begins inside the school. Teachers and parents are well informed of what is happening in the classroom. The instructors meet regularly to discuss what they are teaching, and the parents have taken a strong role in aiding the school as well, Wilson said.
“The parents’ community is very large,” said Wilson. “They put in so much time and effort to guide the students.”
In a globally minded school, it helps that several students themselves come from international families, with parents coming from China and India, as well as different parts of the United States. It is a diversity that is celebrated at NDA.
And when the fifth-graders move on into NDA’s middle school, the teachers there are ready to meet the IB students with more fresh and challenging ways to build upon the education they received thus far.
John Finley, principal of the middle school, calls the IB program more of a methodology than a curriculum.
“We enhance it,” he said about the middle school building on the PYP program. “It is the same methodology. … The IB lends itself to what we are doing.”
Reaching this accreditation took a tremendous amount of work, but it is being celebrated at the school.
“It is huge compliment to our teachers,” said Debra Orr, president of NDA. “We can say we have a good academic program and now it is validated.”