At St. Cecelia's Interparochial Catholic School, students are learning to embrace new traits: Be a thinker. Be a risk-taker. Be open-minded. Be reflective.
And always ask "why?"
The Clearwater school became a candidate last fall for the International Baccalaureate, one of a growing number of schools in the Tampa Bay area and Florida offering the global course of study to younger students.
"It definitely is harder,'' said Mary McMahon, an eighth-grader at St. Cecelia. "But I feel like I'm getting more out of it.'' The 13-year-old plans to continue in IB at Clearwater Central Catholic High School.
The international diploma program has been well-established in Tampa Bay high schools for a number of years, offering an intense and rigorous four-year precollegiate track of study. But in the past five years, the number of Florida elementary and middle schools offering IB has more than doubled, according to the Florida League of International Baccalaureate.
As Florida continues to expand choice, providing parents with more options to educate their children, public school districts have stepped up and are offering popular programs that capture families early on in elementary and tries to keep them through tracks that take students into middle and high school.
In Hillsborough this past fall, Roland Park Elementary, a K-8 in Tampa, and Walker Middle School in Odessa became IB schools and drew applications from more students wanting to enroll.
"Families have embraced it,'' said Terrie Dodson-Caldevilla, choice communication manager for Hillsborough County public schools, and especially at Roland, where it has been a huge selling point that students can participate in IB from kindergarten through eighth grade.
Adding eighth grade, along with seventh, is also part of the plan for the James B. Sanderlin IB World School in Pinellas County. The St. Petersburg school was the first public school in Pinellas to offer IB in prekindergarten through grade 5. It expanded to sixth grade last fall.
"I think IB should be in every school,'' said Denise Miller, principal at Sanderlin and president of the Florida League of International Baccalaureate Schools.
In 2007, 17 Florida middle schools and 11 elementary schools had IB programs. Last year, the group reported 51 programs in middle schools and 24 at the elementary level.
The IB curriculum uses a project-based approach to expose students to the traditional disciplines of math, science, language, humanities and art, among others. In high school, students are required to do an extended essay through independent research, take a Theory of Knowledge course and do hours of community service. At the elementary and middle-school levels, IB asks students to apply a number of character traits to everything they learn.
"It's a different way of thinking,'' said James Johnson, a seventh-grader at St. Cecelia's. "You ask different questions.''
Many questions, said his teacher, Leah Steele. "IB makes them always ask, 'Why?' '' she said.
The school's eighth-graders are using the approach while reading The Diary of Anne Frank. Discussions have included how the German teen, a victim of the Holocaust, was a risk-taker and open-minded.
That has helped students define courage and describe what it means to be a perpetrator, a bystander and a witness.
It's a lesson in social justice that fits right in with St. Cecelia's Catholic teachings, said Carol Purcell, whose son, Patrick, is an eighth-grader at the school.
"He really has learned to think differently,'' she said.
Purcell also likes that IB is available to every middle school student at St. Cecelia's — not just the smartest or gifted ones, or those who apply into the program as they do in high school.
"I didn't know they even had IB in middle and elementary school,'' the mom of three said. "I think it's a great way to make the school unique.''
For all of its good points, however, IB has sparked controversy across the country with some districts rejecting it.
Among the criticisms: It competes with college-level Advanced Placement courses. IB's relationship to the United Nations also has some opponents calling it "un-American."
And then there is the cost.
Many of the nation's 1,300 schools with IB programs use federal money to help cover costs. In Hillsborough public schools, the U.S. Department of Education pays for the programs.
"I think the controversy there is that people don't want taxpayer dollars being spent on a school program with an international or global influence,'' said Karema Harris, executive director of the IB league in Florida.
Schools pay about $100,000 in startup costs for authorization, which can take two to three years and includes extensive teacher training, said Denyse Riviero, principal of MacFarland Elementary in Tampa — the first public elementary school in Hillsborough to offer an IB program.
"It's expensive,'' she said, noting that annual audits can cost $12,000 to $15,000 a year.
IB also is a huge commitment for school leaders, who must constantly rewrite curriculum to stay current, and for teachers, who typically add about 15 hours a week to their lesson-planning time, Riviero said.
But it's worth it, she said.
"I think IB is the right fit for every child,'' Riviero said. The loss for those students not at an IB school is "they don't get that opportunity to grow.''
Carrollwood Day School in Tampa was the first school in Florida to offer IB from preschool to high school, and growth went hand-in-hand with a schoolwide expansion of the program, said teacher Sabrina McCartney, who oversees the primary years program.
IB also has provided parents and others with quality assurance because schools are constantly evaluated to ensure they meet the standards set by the program, McCartney said.
At St. Cecelia in Clearwater, teachers, parents and students have been so enthusiastic about IB that school officials plan to offer it in preschool through fifth grade for the 2013-14 school year.
"When we looked at the qualities built into the program — how to be a thinker, a risk-taker, open-minded, caring, principled, reflective — how would any parent not want that for their child?'' said principal Mary Beth Scanlon.