Park Side School kindergarten teacher Julie Aiello has been teaching for 27 years, but five years ago she volunteered to set aside much of the structure that she practiced as a teacher and start largely anew.

And she has loved every minute of it.

"The kids are so invested because they told me what they want to learn," she said of her 26 kindergarten students. "It's harder, but it's a lot more interesting for me."

The change in teaching was part of the Sebastopol school's five-year quest to become an accredited International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program — one of just 27 in California and the only one in Sonoma County. Next month the school will mark its one-year anniversary as one of 296 primary grades IB programs in the nation.

"Park Side was looking for some way to identify itself in a sea of schools all trying to do the same thing," said Jude Kreissman, a second grade teacher and the school's IB coordinator.

The program promotes inquiry-based, student-driven curriculum that demands teachers and students address questions with a global perspective. Schools create a curriculum unique to their campus but that follows a prescriptive IB-sanctioned model.

All Park Side teachers have undergone IB-specific training and the staff developed a school-wide "Program of Inquiry" that sets out six general themes for each grade level: "Who We Are," "Where We Are in Place and Time," "How We Express Ourselves," "Sharing the Planet," "How We Organize Ourselves," and "How the World Works."

Within general themes, students in each grade level and each class can direct what and how they learn, Park Side teachers said. A unit on the solar system looks different today than it did this time last year, said Sara Gramm, who teaches third and fourth graders.

"Last year, they were totally into what was life like on the moon. This year, this class was totally into comparing the sun and the moon and the earth," she said.

Group projects, study sessions and class questions reflect those differences and teachers have to be flexible, she said.

"I think one of the biggest things that has changed is allowing the kids to drive the instruction at the beginning," she said. "It's been really fun listening to the kids."

The state standards are still there — Aiello has a list of kindergarten targets and concepts taped to a filing cabinet in her room — but they are incorporated into the lesson, not the dominant force, she said.

"We have essentially taken California State Standards and made them part of our <NO1>(cq)<NO>planner," Kreissman said. "We are not exempt from that as an IB school."

But the introduction of curriculum that strays in part from state directives can be tricky to implement, said Steve Herrington, Superintendent of Sonoma County Office of Education.

"IB does not always have alignment with the testing model so they are going to run that risk," he said. "Whenever you do that, you have to factor that anomaly into your stats."

But the risk could provide a payoff, he said.

"Anything that is going to be a challenge for kids is always going to be a benefit for the learner, so that is always good," he said. "They key is in the delivery. That is always the key."

Park Side's scores are on the rise.

In 2007, the school earned a 810 on the state's Academic Performance Index. Park Side dropped to 766 in 2008 but last year registered a one-year gain of 88 points to reach 830.

California officials have set a goal of 800 out of 1,000 for all schools.

But district officials are still assessing how to quantify success for Park Side's IB program.

In the tight economic times that played a role in the district's decision to shutter Pine Crest Elementary School last spring, the district is contributing $20,000 to pay for Kreissman's coordinator position. The annual fee for IB accreditation jumped from $2,500 when the school started to process to $7,500 today, according to Kreissman.

"We have had to work exceptionally hard to keep our program going," she said.

Fifty-three percent of Park Side's 270 students are considered economically disadvantaged and 29 percent are English language learners.

In Sonoma County, the only other IB school is Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa, which has run an accredited program for 17 years.