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Board Mulls Changes for Terraset

Terraset Elementary is seeking approval to become an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program school.

When Highland Park Learning Center, a Roanoke elementary school, started to become an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program school three years ago, the high-poverty school soon noticed a dramatic increase in its students' Standards of Learning test scores.

"For a school with 67 percent poverty like us, being a PYP school is just wonderful," said Debbie Doss, Highland Park's principal. "The teachers and the parents here believe in it strongly."

Now, Terraset Elementary in Reston is hoping to replicate Highland Park's success with IB/PYP, an instructional framework originally used to teach children of American foreign service officers abroad.

If approved by the Fairfax County School Board, the program would essentially involve a school-wide International Baccalaureate overhaul of how teachers instruct students at Terraset.

It would incorporate foreign language instruction, convert the school to an inquiry-based learning model, and provide all of the school's students with a more global-perspective education. Also, PYP schools use constant assessment via tests and grades to ensure all children are learning and retaining the material.

"Obviously we think the Primary Years Program would be great for our school," said Ellen Cury, Terraset's principal.

The school board will consider the educational value and financial impact of Terraset becoming an IB/PYP school at work session Thursday at 4:30 p.m. at Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church.

THE SCHOOL SYSTEM has pondered implementing IB/PYP at a handful of elementary schools around the county that feed into middle school and high school International Baccalaureate programs, as does Terraset.

Since last year, parents, teachers and administrators from Terraset have urged county school officials and school board members to approve and fund the program. Should it be approved by the school board in the coming months, it could also be implemented at six other elementary schools that have expressed interest. No Fairfax County elementary school currently offers the program.

According to FCPS estimates, continuing to study the program would cost nearly $60,000 and actually implementing the program could cost $44,000 the first year and $109,000 the second at each school.

Ideally, the program would be given enough funds to pay for a full-time language teacher to offer Terraset students Spanish classes four times a week, Cury said.

Language instruction is particularly important as many elementary schools are focusing almost exclusively on material covered on SOL tests, said School Board Member Stu Gibson (Hunter Mill).

And brain development research indicates that children can more easily acquire different languages before the age of 12, Gibson said.

"From birth to age 12, kids are like sponges with language," he said.

Gibson said he fully supports IB/PYP at Terraset and will work to see it passed by the school board.

"This is a way to prepare kids to do the higher level of work we'd like to see them strive for when they get to middle school and high school," Gibson said. "I am very supportive of this."

LIKE HIGHLAND PARK in Roanoke, Terraset has a significant number of students — almost one out of every three — who are eligible for free and reduced price lunch.

In addition to its economic diversity, the school has students from 38 countries, who speak 24 languages. That cultural diversity suggests that IB/PYP's global perspective would be a good fit for Terraset, Cury said.

"We're a very diverse school and there's a real international flavor that goes through all this," she said.

The program could also encourage students and their parents to see IB classes at the high school level as a viable option, helping underrepresented demographics of students to take more competitive courses, said Carolyn Low, who maintains an informational website about IB/PYP at Terraset and who is the mother of a third grade student at the school.

"It really addresses every child's needs," she said.