The Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School is set to begin a new chapter in its academic development after being accepted into the International Baccalaureate program, a prestigious consortium of over 5,000 schools worldwide.

The International Baccalaureate (IB) began in 1968 and focuses on creating critical thinking students through both a rigorous core curriculum (much like Advanced Placement) and a more fluid, student-centered one. The school will officially incorporate the curriculum for junior and senior high school students in the fall of 2021.

“What is exciting for the families and students is that we are now part of an international group of learners,” charter school director Pete Steedman told the Gazette by Zoom this week. “We are part of something larger than ourselves.”

The school was accepted into two IB programs, the diploma program and the career program, a hybrid incorporating vocational and academic tracks. Currently only 283 schools have been accepted into the career program. “The IB is the most rigorous academic program on the planet but we want to create different pathways to access this,” Mr. Steedman said. “If you know you want to go to an Ivy League school there is a pathway, but if you know you want to work with horses, there is a pathway for equine science. It’s similar to what the charter school has done for 25 years, cultivating an individualized educational program for each student to maximize their own potential, whatever that is.”

It is an educational system Mr. Steedman knows well.

“I have over 20 years of IB experience as a teacher, as an IB coordinator as well as a principal in both domestic schools at Sturgis Charter in Hyannis and down in Miami,” he said. “But I also have international experience in IB working in schools in the Netherlands, Australia and Brazil.”

Founded in 1996 by a group of Island parents and educators, the Vineyard charter school uses a project-based learning curriculum for students in grades K-12. Mr. Steedman took over as director of the school in the fall of 2018. He said at the time he was interested in shifting the school to the IB model, but didn’t want to rush the decision. “I didn’t want to make it something that I believed and then force them to do it, so we really took our time to explore to see if the IB would be a good fit,” he said.

Internal discussions evolved over the course of a year, Mr. Steedman said, with consultants discussing the program with parents, students and the school board, all of whom had a say in the final vote.

And then the work began. A school must undergo a rigorous evaluation that requires teachers to create new curriculum and lesson plans, even though there is no guarantee that the long process will end in an acceptance to the program.

“It’s not something you take on lightly,” Mr. Steedman said. “And it’s a leap of faith because the IB does not allow you to even be considered unless you do this work. Kudos to the teachers for taking this on.”

Charter school IB coordinator Sonja Josephson. — Mark Alan Lovewell

He had some unexpected help walk through the door in Sonja Josephson who arrived with her own deep knowledge, having been a student at Quabbin Regional High School in western Massachusetts at a time when that school was first accepted into the IB program. Ms. Josephson was working as a library assistant at the Aquinnah Public Library when she heard the charter school was embarking on the journey. She is now the IB coordinator for the school.

“I was drawn to the IB because I come from an international background,” Ms. Josephson said. “I grew up in Finland and also spent time in Estonia for a couple of years as a teenager, moving to the U.S. when I was 12 years old. So I would say, I have a globally molded understanding of the world.”

This global perspective is at the heart of the IB program, both for students and faculty, Mr. Steedman said. Important guideposts, including major papers, projects and tests are examined first by charter school teachers but then sent abroad for further evaluation. For example, a final paper might be sent to a teacher in Argentina or China to be evaluated again by a teacher there.

“If I was too lenient they brought down the grade,” Mr. Steedman said. “If I was too harsh, they raised the grade.”

The career program also enables charter school students to connect with schools and vocations around the world, as well as focusing on unique local aspects of the Vineyard.

“I am really excited about the career path program because some students already know what they want to pursue when they are in high school,” Ms. Josephson said. “Not everyone does but some do have an understanding of what they want to study. This offers the opportunity to the students to receive an accreditation in that field of interest. Currently, we are planning to offer the Offshore Wind Technician Program through ACEMV and Vineyard Wind. This is just one example. A student could go straight into the workforce or to college and have college credits under their belt.”

Both tracks follow a core curriculum in varying degrees, including a two-year course called The Theory of Knowledge.

“The glue that holds it all together is The Theory of Knowledge,” Mr. Steedman said. “And back in my youth, before I lost my way and went into administration, I was a Theory of Knowledge teacher. This course encourages students to question how they think. It is a course that changes dinner time conversations, a two-year study of epistemology, asking how do we know what we know.”

Now that the school has been accepted into the IB program, administrators will focus on the logistics of implementing it in the fall, including holding open houses this spring for upperclassmen to begin choosing their courses of study.

“The IB can really be a chameleon and take different forms depending on what your school values,” Mr. Steedman said. “I have worked in schools where the IB is seen as an elite program only for certain types of students. We are going to be IB for all.”