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Forming the Future: Notre Dame Academy embraces International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme

Students participating in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme at Notre Dame Academy, Hingham, are pictured during their trip this fall to the United Nations in New York City. Pilot photo/courtesy Notre Dame Academy

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HINGHAM -- This year, the juniors at Notre Dame Academy had a new set of class options: they could take subjects offered in the two-year format of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, a rigorous European curriculum that emphasizes critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.

The Diploma Programme is a two-year program for juniors and seniors who can take one or several IB courses. There are 4,200 IB schools around the world, 11 of which are run by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.

Notre Dame Academy became an International Baccalaureate World School earlier this year, after a three-year acquisition process overseen by Courtney Russillo, the school's assistant principal for academics.

"It's a testament to the quality of our programming here that we were able to actually become an IB school in just a little over two years," Russillo told the Pilot Nov. 30.

She said the decision to adopt the Diploma Programme came from the desire to expand the school's global education program.

"So many of our students travel these days. So many of them will most likely have a job where they may need to speak another language, where they may need to travel. We really wanted to point to that idea that the world is getting smaller and smaller," Russillo said.

In many schools, "There's this emphasis on 'achieve, achieve, achieve,' and sometimes when you force kids into that way of thinking, the whole idea of love of learning gets completely washed away," Russillo said.

In contrast, in the IB program, "The idea is inquiry, action and reflection. So, the model is a little different than a traditional high school setting in that the kids are investigating all the time," Russillo said. They ask, "Why am I learning, how am I learning, and what am I learning?"

Notre Dame Academy is the only all-girls school in eastern Massachusetts to offer IB, and the first private school on the South Shore. All the juniors take at least one IB course and 70 percent of the juniors take more than two. Fifteen juniors are full Diploma Programme students, meaning they take six IB subjects and complete core projects. Half of the NDA student body is slated to participate as juniors and seniors next year.

Russillo believes the program's student-centered approach to learning is especially beneficial for an all-girls school like NDA.

"It's constantly asking kids to approach learning through trial and error, and we feel like girls don't take enough risks in their learning. So, by implementing a program that pushes them to take risks, they come out more self-assured," Russillo said.

"I would describe IB as a completely different learning experience that focuses on learning instead of grades. IB has taught me to focus on the learning process and get the most out my courses," said Caroline Harrington, NDA class of 2020.

"The IB program promotes a love of learning, allowing us to enjoy our studies through various subjects that break the traditional and less bold curriculum that we've grown up with. It challenges us to question our knowledge, while encouraging us to engage in the world around us, whether that is current events, politics, or culture," said Orla MacIntyre, NDA class of 2020.

The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme uses a cross-curricular approach that encourages students to make connections between different subjects.

"There's a concerted effort to use the same vocabulary, to have similar types of questions," Russillo said.

The intersection of subjects was evident during a field trip in October. Students in IB classes for global politics, business management, and theatre went to New York City on International United Nations Day. They met the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur's representative in the U.N., visited the financial district and stock exchange, and saw the Broadway musical "Come From Away," which incorporates themes of hospitality and global community that resonate with the IB approach.

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