Beigh Risk-Takers

Whittier School for the Arts joins the IB revolution

Principal Armando Camacho inspired kids to face their fears during his morning announcements over the loudspeaker at Whittier School for the Arts, 315 W. 26th St. Then teachers fitted the theme into their mid-January week’s activities, and students embarked on risky business.

The lesson was drawn from the global International Baccalaureate-Primary Years Programme (IB-PYP), a magnet curriculum that Whittier will implement over the next four years. Right now, they’re in "Phase Two" as teachers write lesson plans and get trained.

In response to Camacho’s urge, one 1st-grader tackled her anxiety about public speaking when she presented for her entire class; a 4th-grader in another room shared some hip dance moves from his personal repertory during the kinesthetic "Dance Math." It was a bold step for both – one they probably wouldn’t have made if nobody had challenged them to do something brave.

Taking risks is just one IB topic educators developed to grab students’ attention – without compromising their arts focus or the city’s education standards. Arts Coordinator Joan Byhre insists that IB harmonized with the school’s creative tempo. The arts still set the tone, she maintained – literally. Live piano accompaniment from volunteers starts and closes the day (volunteers come from Stevens Square’s Plymouth Congregational Church, 1900 Nicollet Ave.).

Educators count on the art-IB synthesis to be a boon to low enrollment. Of 525 capacity only 330 students currently attend Whittier. Even though Whittier has been a community school, 180 elementary kids who lived in the neighborhood went to 31 other schools as a result of School Choice last year. That’s a big reason Whittier is becoming a magnet.

The switch means more student transportation will be provided. Previously, Whittier lost students who couldn’t get a ride to school. Now, as the school "auditions" for IB (IB-authorization is a gradual process), Camacho hopes parents will choose Whittier, which boasted Adequate Yearly Progress last year under the No Child Left Behind standards for reading and math.

Camacho maintains that IB wouldn’t change the culture and wouldn’t crowd out poor families. Even if IB lures more affluent transfers, current students – most in poverty – are guaranteed spots. What happens as those students graduate is an unknown, though; new students arrive by lottery, and there could be fewer kids in poverty in a few years.

For now, some of the poorest students in the city will be learning in one of its most rigorous curricula. Whittier is an on-point demonstration of Minneapolis Superintendent of Schools Thandiwe Peebles’ belief that students in poverty will learn more if they are challenged more.

A truer portrait

"When you walk into an IB school, you feel it; it’s good. It’s very calm and kids are engaged," Camacho said.

And, IB’s global emphasis paints a truer portrait of Whittier, which is 98 percent minority. "Most schools represent a neighborhood, but we’ll reflect the city," he added.

"I see it as a comfortable and expected, quality marriage. I’m really juiced up," said IB Coordinator Melissa Anderson, who was hired specifically to integrate the new program. Although IB is tougher than the regular curriculum, she said the theme-based lessons would be easier for kids to understand. Since it isn’t textbook-driven, kids feel less pressured, she said.

Students aren’t the only ones learning to be risk-takers. There are only 50 elementary IB schools nationwide; the only one in Minnesota is St. Paul’s Highland Park Elementary School, which took seven years to become IB-authorized.

Whittier fast-forwards the IB process because it has the resources, thanks to a $3.1 million desegregation grant awarded jointly to Whittier and the North Side’s Hall Elementary School. However, Camacho said, the school was going to go IB with or without the grant.

Conveniently, Hall already taught inquiry-based lessons and Whittier needed a new delivery style, said Minneapolis Elementary Superintendent Dr. Gwen Jackson. IB made sense because it closed the primary-school-level achievement gap between whites and students of color, which Jackson said strengthens upper grades.

When students graduate from Whittier and Hall, they may follow the IB continuum to Anwatin Middle School, 256 Upton Ave. S., and Southwest High School, 3414 W. 47th St. Unlike the middle and high school IBs, elementary kids don’t have to apply; the programs are open to everyone.

Said Jackson, "We want rigor in all of the schools. I felt that this would be a great model for others. Teachers have really rolled up their sleeves and found different ways to teach the curriculum."


The path to IB school starts backwards; schools begin with a larger vision and then fine-tune the details. There’s no rigid curriculum, so schools sculpt their own material and tailor it to their needs. Whittier’s foreign language and World Music programs are a natural feeder for the IB philosophy, which originated in 1968 Switzerland to serve international students. It highlights values such as individuality, reflection, curiosity, expression, knowledge and making connections in six "units of inquiry" a year.

Ideally, kids can move anywhere in the world and pick up where they left off. For example, Whittier teachers talk about Minneapolis issues but then point out the worldly significance.

Teachers are optimistic about the results and adapted their teaching styles. They said the evidence was already beginning to show. First- and 2nd-grade teacher Sara Swanson testified that kids could already grasp what an "inquirer" is and was proud that they could comprehend such a big word.

"Kids are more in charge of their learning. We’re [teachers] definitely leading, but kids can explore their curiosity and different people with different ideas can both be right," 4th-grade teacher Litty Rich said.

Swanson agreed, "I pause to consider what students want to know before diving in and telling them what they’re supposed to know."

But instruction is still intentional. Rich asserted that though the material was malleable, they wouldn’t do anything unless it was part of a goal. Such as, "The field trip is usually the final thing or a celebration. It [IB] challenged us to think about field trips as just the beginning and as research," Rich said.

Swanson thinks about how each attribute translates throughout the day, "To do hard math problems, you have to be a risk-taker and a thinker," she said.

Granted, she was wary at first because IB seemed like a huge undertaking. But time to plan with other teachers has been built into the school day. Teachers work toward a common goal. Although they couldn’t say that it would be perfect or solve everything, they said they’re up to the task.

"It’s a lot of work to do – but anything worth doing is a lot of work," Rich said.

Camacho said he doesn’t want teachers working late hours but that they’d be compensated with an hourly rate for extra pains. Furthermore, planning won’t stop once the program is running. "It’s always under construction. We want to make sure that we’re always challenged and our brains aren’t stagnant," he said.

Tricia Clarke, whose 4th-grade son has attended Whittier since kindergarten, was reticent at first because she thought he’d lose the art infusion. But he starts French this month and is still playing piano through the school’s arts partnership. She’s especially fond of the international overview and predicts that kids will learn to ask more questions.

Although some parents worried that IB would skip the nuts and bolts, or would prove to be too intellectual/exclusive, Swanson was confident. "This covers the basics in a deeper, richer way. Learning a lot of things quickly provides a shallow base. This makes for lifelong learning."

She adds that there’s no known achievement gap for poverty, gender or race, and IB kids score higher on tests. "There’s 100 percent poverty in some IB schools, but they’re achieving just like the more affluent kids. There’s no excuse why they can’t do well," Camacho said.

Many parents feel the same way. According to PTA President Stephanie McChesney, IB "develops the whole child, not just the intellectual part. It enhances social skills, communication skills and thinking skills. Instead of memorization, they learn how to think."

She added, "Most parents don’t know how lucky [their kids] are to be exposed to this. I’m just thrilled. I didn’t know about anything outside my neighborhood when I was 7 years old. My daughter is going to know some pretty cool stuff."

Want to know more?

See for Whittier Schools for the Arts information.