PORT RICHEY — Students of Bishop Larkin Catholic School fitted in dresses or khakis listened Thursday as women sang "hosanna" from the front of the sanctuary at Saint James the Apostle Catholic Church. The students whispered to one other, perhaps not realizing the enormity of the change taking place in their lives: They were graduating eighth grade, poised to leave and venture into high school.
Those students aren't the only ones experiencing a major change from the Bishop Larkin they know. The school is implementing coursework that will make it the only Pasco school to offer the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program.
Parents may be familiar with the IB degree offered to high school students. Land O'Lakes High School and Gulf High School offer that program, which requires students to participate in certain classes and projects to earn the advanced diploma.
The program offered by Bishop Larkin will be different, assistant principal Sylvia Peters said. It's not a degree program, and every student will take part since it changes the requirements of both honors and standard classes.
Sister Regina Ozuzu, the school's principal, said the Middle Years program focuses on teacher training and interdisciplinary schooling rather than degree requirements.
"In middle school, you go to science, you think about science. You go to math, you think about math," Ozuzu said.
With IB, however, students will connect lessons from various courses. Students in science class will be expected to write well, and students in English class will be expected to demonstrate a grasp of science.
The program would include extensive teacher training to instruct students that way, Peters said. Five teachers have already been to a training session in St. Petersburg, and Peters and Ozuzu will train in Atlanta soon, Peters said.
Ozuzu said the school will probably hire additional teachers for the program. She said it's too early to tell how many or for what subjects, and she expects current teachers will teach multiple subjects.
The question on many parents' minds is whether the new curriculum will induce a tuition increase.
Despite application and accreditation fees the school is shelling out, Peters said, parents will not see these costs. Tuition will stay at $4,159 per year for members of a Catholic parish and $5,530 per year for those who are not.
If more students enroll at Bishop Larkin, the school's revenues collected from tuition will increase. But Peters and Ozuzu said attracting students is not the goal of implementing IB, though Ozuzu said more students would be a blessing.
"If they want to jump on the bandwagon, the doors are open," she said with a laugh.
But Peters said the goal is to better serve the students already enrolled at the school.
It will take Bishop Larkin two to three years to earn full accreditation, Ozuzu said, at which time it will become an IB World School.
Meanwhile, Peters said, teachers will start to implement the IB curriculum. To become fully accredited, the school will need to present student projects and classes to demonstrate its commitment to the program.
The school already practices many of the IB requirements, Peters said. For example, students already study science with hands-on projects, which the IB program emphasizes.
Still, teachers will have more work creating interdisciplinary lesson plans, Ozuzu said.
Peters said because the IB program focuses on an international education, lessons about culture will be included in coursework. Students in Spanish will take the class three days a week instead of two.
In physical education, students could learn American sports as well as games from other countries and time periods, Ozuzu said.
Despite curriculum shifts, there are some basic things that won't change at Bishop Larkin.
The painted statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ will remain the first thing people see when they pass through the school's front door. The poster with James 4:8 about people coming closer to God will stay on the wall, as will the tapestry with swirling letters declaring, "He is risen."
"We are first and foremost a Catholic school," Ozuzu said. "We are a Catholic school adding IB."
Mary Kenney can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.