Embracing IB for All: Our Story

The following piece is a guest post by DFHS IB Coordinator Marion Halberg (@MegHalberg) that was published on the IB Community Blog under the “E2 Excellence and Equity” category.

IB Learner Profile: IB Learners are Inquirers, Knowledgeable, Thinkers, Communicators, Principled, Open-Minded, Caring, Risk-Takers, Balanced, Reflective


Dobbs Ferry High School is a small public high school just north of New York City. Students who live within our village’s borders attend the schools in the district. The high school has approximately 440 students. Of these students, 13% receive special education services, over 3% are currently below English proficiency and receive ESOL services, a larger percentage are former English language learners and received ESOL in elementary and/or middle school, over 4% speak a language other than English at home (that’s an under-reported number due to recent changes in demographic data collection), and approximately 15% are eligible for free or reduced lunch (which is typically under-reported at the high school level).

When the IB Diploma Programme began in 1998, it was a small, elite program adopted to attract and enhance the high academic achievers in the district. It was very successful but really only engaged a small portion (approximately 10-15%) of the student body and didn’t address the needs of the school at large. Students as well as teachers who were not involved with IB didn’t relate to it and really didn’t understand why we had IB. In truth, we weren’t an IB World school at that time, we were a school with a small IB Diploma Programme. This continued for many years, with push-back often coming from the community asking why we weren’t offering A.P. courses and why we invested so much in IB. Today, every student in 11th and 12th grades takes IB English and IB Math because that’s all we offer. In addition, most students take at least one other IB course but usually more and approximately 25% of the graduating students each year are full Diploma candidates. In the May 2016 session, eight of our full Diploma Candidates don’t speak English at home, five were born outside the United States, two participated in our district’s ESOL program before high school and three entered our district in middle or high school. Our salutatorian, who earned the diploma, took ESOL in our elementary school.

How did this happen? Looking back it is clear that when we truly began to understand and embrace the IB Learner Profile, we were able to change and expand IB for all of our students. If you do that, everything else will follow. Here are some key steps we took on this journey.

I confess: When I began working at DFHS the year after IB was authorized, I was one of the teachers who would turn and stop paying attention when IB was discussed at faculty meetings. If we didn’t teach a course, we weren’t engaged at all with the program. And we really didn’t understand it either.

Although many things evolved along the way, one big change happened when school leaders practiced open-mindedness and encouraged me to become the Diploma Coordinator. I am an ESOL teacher and I also coordinate the district’s English Language Learning program. I was a most unlikely choice to be involved with our Diploma Programme because I didn’t teach an IB  course and most of the students with whom I worked did not access the program at that time. With my appointment, colleagues began to see that someone who wasn’t even marginally involved with the program could be very involved and interested in IB. As I began to attend training and develop my own understanding of IB, I realized how well the philosophy meshed with my own belief that all students deserve and should have equal access to what everyone else has. And that’s the belief of so many at DFHS. This open-mindedness really was the beginning of a complete expansion of IB at DFHS. That was about six years ago.

Coinciding with this, our school leaders, with the benefit of a donation to fund it, began sending teachers who weren’t teaching IB courses to training. This was perhaps one of the most important ways to build not only the strength of the school’s IB identity but also the strength of the academic program. Teachers in ninth and tenth grades began to see what they were preparing their students for when they got to the Diploma Programme.They became knowledgeable, really for the first time, about what the DP really is. In faculty meetings we began to use the language of inclusion. “We’re all IB teachers because every student we work with is going to be an IB student!” And we backed that up by sending just about all teachers 9-12  for training. New teachers to our school are sent for training. So are administrators. Counselors are the gatekeepers of the program and when they attend training they really learn about university recognition and how IB is good for all students. Counselors are the ones on the ground helping students and parents understand the courses and diploma offerings. They are key to helping students practice balance and recognize whether going for the full diploma or taking several courses will be a better match for the student. Dobbs Ferry sent our first counselor for training in 2011. We had already had the program for 13 years! Now, all of our high school counselors are IB-trained. And they are completely behind IB for our students.

Dobbs Ferry HS for a very long time has been a model as a full-inclusion district. Throughout the K-12 program there are classes and courses taught by co-teachers who work and collaborate for all the students with whom they work. Another decisive move was to send our special educators and content teachers together for subject training. In addition, some special educators have participated in the continuum three workshops on special needs.

This universal training of our educators allows us to support students with IEPs and 504 plans and gives them access to the Diploma Programme. In addition to a full inclusion model which means that IB English and IB Math courses have sections with co-teachers, we have taken advantage of IBO’s own evolution in terms of granting accommodations to those with special needs. We file for those accommodations and have worked with IBO on several cases recently that were more complicated but we wanted to give students the ability to access the program through taking the courses and completing the May papers. And that’s important: Accessing the program doesn’t necessarily mean being a full Diploma Candidate (although it might). Access means being able to take courses and explore interests through the taking of IB courses. Being balanced and caring and principled applies to all of us in the school community.

A couple of years ago when IBO opened TOK to students beyond Diploma Candidates, we jumped on board and have opened the course to all our students who are interested in taking it. Two years ago we added Spanish Ab Initio because we saw a need in terms of both students entering our district without the background knowledge to participate in our current Language B offerings and also an opportunity to allow former English language learners and special education students who may have been exempt from language in middle and early high school to participate. This move allowed a transfer student to access the full diploma which previously would not have been possible. We have already seen an increased demand and anticipate adding more sections in the future. The expansion of Group 6 subjects also makes the DP accessible to many more students. Our art and film students, although some may be gifted artists, is also open enrollment and many students take these courses with absolutely no previous experience.

We also began celebrating the IB Learner profile very openly. Throughout the year, a student-of- the-month ceremony celebrates students in different subject groups who, based on teacher endorsements, embodies some aspect of the IB Learner Profile. We use the language of the Learner Profile in other award ceremonies, at commencement ceremonies and as often as we can. Many teachers in ninth and tenth grades begin their opening days of the school year with activities that ask students to think about how they themselves connect to the Learner Profile.

Engaging the community was a very crucial piece on the road to becoming an all IB school. When our current Head of School and new superintendent arrived in 2011, we were at a crossroads. Although we had already set into motion the idea of “IB for all” and were saying it publicly, we hadn’t effectively communicated this to the community at large. Parents were very concerned because we would speak publicly about IB for all students but we didn’t explain the way we would support students who had special needs or those who were perceived as not academically ready for the rigors of IB. People really thought that we were just going to put all students in IB classes and let them sink or swim. Nothing was further from the truth but we didn’t effectively communicate how we were going to transition to an all-IB school and how we were going to make access possible for all students. On the other extreme, parents of students who were typical full Diploma students at that time were asking why we didn’t offer AP courses (which they were more familiar with) and how was attending an IB high school going to help their children.  We learned a lot from that. And the way we responded made all the difference. At that point, we could have moved forward or possibly lost hold of our goal to enhance and improve our IBness. So we listened to our community and encouraged them to ask us their questions. Our superintendent engaged community members in book chats around Tony Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap. What came out of those and a very well-attended and hard-looking community forum at the end of that year was the agreement in the community about what we wanted for our school and for our students. And when we looked at the list of the things we wanted, we realized, all of us, that the IB Diploma Programme was the perfect fit to provide DFHS students with the skills and attributes of  a 21st Century learner. But we wanted to provide this education in a principled and caring way. And as an additional result of this inquiry and reflection, we also began to move toward adopting the Middle Years Program in grades 6 to 10. In October we will have our authorization visit for MYP. Obviously, we have strengthened our connection to IB and we truly will be an all-IB high school (and middle school). Engaging as both inquirers and communicators made this happen. It was difficult but very important.

Some important challenges to keep in mind:

Don’t just focus on the scores. Previously, most of our students going for the full diploma were easy to identify– we were usually sure they would be able to meet the demands academically. Of course, scores are important and community members are often focused on scores.  Now, that’s not always the case. Sometimes we have students who go for the full Diploma and don’t get it. But what those students got in the process will serve them ten-fold in the future. And, sometimes, taking two or three IB courses is taking a risk for a student. We are willing to take the risk to offer IB courses and the opportunity to be a Diploma Candidate to all of our students no matter the results. This helps our students become risk takers, too, in the best sense of the term.

We began asking our graduates how their IB experiences had served them in freshman year of college. We began looking at assessments and worked during shared collaborative time to understand where our students did well and where they had gaps. We mapped backwards to 10th and 9th grades so that by the time students were in their 11th grade courses, it wasn’t such a great difference from the kind of work/assessments that they had already been experiencing. Being reflective across the curriculum, across the school and with our alumni has helped us learn about the strengths and weaknesses of our work.

Another thing that helps us to reflect on our practice is the visits we receive from other schools hoping to understand IB better as they explore becoming authorized schools. Although we were the first, now our county has many IB schools. We receive frequent requests to host visitors from all over the New York Metro area from schools who are seeking information and first-hand knowledge of our Diploma Programme. Each time we receive visitors, we have another opportunity to reflect and communicate our beliefs and experiences. We also host a roundtable each year as part of the regional organization to which we belong (GIBS). These roundtables are a terrific way to share best practices with regional colleagues. We always learn something from these collaborations.

But reflection is ongoing. We are again looking back at this journey but also looking forward. We’re all thinkers, too. Where do we want to be in the coming school year, next year, five years (when we will have our next five-year self study)? We already some directions we want to take. We’d like to expand our CAS program and encourage more students (if not all) students to participate. We know there’s research that shows that students who are on the receiving end of community service get even more when they themselves participate in service to others. We want to make that happen and recognize that access and equity in CAS will be community building in many ways.

In addition to celebrating the Learner Profile for students, we plan to begin celebrating staff who also embody attributes of the profile. We want teachers and staff to know that we value their caring for their students and colleagues, their open-mindedness to try new things, their risk-taking even when sometimes outcomes aren’t what was anticipated. We don’t want our teachers to be reduced to scores and evaluations. They are whole people educating whole people.

And throughout our 18-year IB journey there have been many colleagues and experiences that have helped to move us forward. It’s not just one moment in time but rather different initiatives along the way (like aligning math 6-12 which led to the addition of Math Studies in 11th and 12th grades) and a previous self-study evaluation that cited us and moved us to offer most of our courses over two years that have all contributed to where we are today. And we will continue to evolve.

As we move toward full authorization of our MYP program, we are very excited about how being an all-IB school has become a reality for Dobbs Ferry High School. There are some links and contact information below. Please feel free to reach out. We love to share our story!

Here’s a link to our story: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SV9Nkkj3KrY

Here’s a link to our Head of School’s Blog: “On Principal with John Falino” https://johnfalino.com/

Find us on Twitter:

Dr. John Falino, Head of School: @johnfalino1

Marion Halberg, Diploma Coordinator: @MegHalberg

Candace Reim, IB Administrator: @careim2

Dr. Lisa Brady, Superintendent of Schools @YoleBrady

Doug Berry, Asst. Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction: @dfdcidberry

Erin Vredenburgh @ErinVred

Jennifer Hickey, MYP Coordinator: @MsHM211



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