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Sierra Elementary earns IB designation

By: Lien Hoang, Special to The Placer Herald
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On a recent vacation, Lisa Johnson and her family visited elephant seals near San Simeon. Suddenly her youngest daughter, Sydney, unleashed an arsenal of questions for the guide: How do the seals have babies? Do they get attacked by sharks? What is molting? Johnson credits the delightful surprise to an overhaul in her children’s education. As Sierra Elementary School has remolded its curriculum to fit International Baccalaureate standards, Johnson has noticed her introverted second-grader taking more risks and talking to new people unabashedly. Next month, Sierra will celebrate its debut as the only official International Baccalaureate elementary school in greater Sacramento, and one of few in Northern California. Johnson will be there as a parent — her other daughter, Shelby, is in sixth grade — but also as a teacher. She is one of the more than two dozen staff members that have been rewriting teaching material to reflect “inquiry-based learning,” as principal Karen Huffines described it. Gone is the era of rote memorization and textbook exams. In its place, Sierra is ushering in IB-approved methods that get students more involved in their studies, such as through projects and critical analysis. “We offer something kind of a cut above,” Huffines said. The IB organization also requires its 3,000 member schools to teach a non-native language, which for Sierra will be Spanish. It bespeaks a larger philosophy that prepares children to compete in the globalizing 21st century. And after two years of testing out the refashioned curriculum, Sierra is already seeing a changing landscape. The student body, for instance, has diversified culturally as the IB program attracts a wider range of families to Sierra. Of 520 students this year, Huffines said 50 to 60 come from out of the district specifically for the IB education. Each extra student, she added, also brings more state dollars. The changes are even more apparent in the classroom. Johnson said that, like her no-longer-shy second-grader, her students are shedding their timidity. They are up and out of their seats, collaborating in group assignments. There are more opportunities for strugglers to participate and feel successful. While old teaching habits singled out academic stars and relegated below-average peers to the shadows, the IB program demands more egalitarian contributions from the entire class. “There’s really an increased zest for learning,” Johnson said. She described a similar evolution unfolding among staff. Instead of the isolation some teachers once felt, they now must consult regularly about best practices, thereby opening the door for advice and communication. “Gosh, in the olden days, folks go in and shut the door. It’s your classroom and it’s a solo act,” Johnson said. “But the IB program is really about teamwork.” The team embarked four years ago to apply for IB status, a venture that has taken them on out-of-state training, brought in consultants from the organization, and necessitated constant lesson plan revisions, usually during the off-hours. Huffines expects the school will spend between $5,000 and $10,000 per year to maintain IB membership. Now that those efforts are paying off, Johnson sees Sierra starting the next chapter of its history. “This is my 15th year of teaching, but I feel like it’s an opportunity to start anew,” she said.