Beth Fertig is WNYC’s Contributing Editor for Education. She previously covered politics, which included City Hall during the Giuliani administration, and the U.S. Senate campaigns of Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton. She also covered transportation and infrastructure.
A New High Tech Charter Gets an Early Start
Tuesday, August 19, 2014 - 12:21 PM
On the first day of class at the Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School Monday, many of the 130-plus sixth-graders had one question: “When will we get our laptops?”
The brand-new charter school's theme is technology. Its goal is to bring robotics and digital animation into the classroom by partnering with universities and businesses in downtown Brooklyn’s emerging high-tech industry.
“We believe that students need to be designers,” said principal Eric Tucker. “Producers, makers, tinkerers.”
Tucker envisions students designing their own video games to learn fractions or how to write a good essay.
But that digital learning can’t happen, Tucker said, until students and teachers get to know the lay of the land. So for the first two weeks, the school is holding half-day sessions from 7:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. so students can learn the basic rules. The school is one of four charters that started classes this week, well ahead of the city's traditional public schools.
Staffers at Brooklyn Lab were still struggling Monday to get steady Wi-Fi connections throughout the building on Jay Street, a former Catholic school. The school has been grappling with some of the same broadband issues affecting businesses in the densely packed neighborhood, but Tucker said teams of people were working to get everything smoothed out by September.
On Monday, the sixth-graders were divided into homerooms, where they spent the day playing get-to-know-you games and practiced moving their tomato-red swivel chairs into position before lining up quietly to move from one classroom to the next.
“Take a look around you,” said English teacher Nour Goda, as her 23 pupils correctly moved their chairs back into place on the third attempt. “This is what classy looks like.”
With that, she encouraged the students to snap their fingers instead of clapping.
Unlike some charter schools, which emphasize a “no excuses” model of discipline, the founders of Brooklyn Lab said they will be warm but firm. After the initial orientation period, the school day will run from 7:30 a.m. until 5:15 p.m. and include arts and enrichment classes. Twenty-six recent college graduates will work as small-group tutors and assist the classroom teachers. Tucker said the school has a large percentage of students with special needs, which is why three of its seven teachers have special ed backgrounds.
Brooklyn Lab is relying on "old-school" strategies, with plenty of library books and time for independent reading. But teachers will incorporate digital learning strategies, too, like having their students submit papers digitally and answer questions online so that they can be read in real time by the teachers and tutors.
One boy said that seemed “a little bit scary,” because the teachers could always see what he was writing. But 11-year-old Zachary Desrosiers Victorin Vassell said he thought that would make the teacher more involved. “Because, instead of like going up to the person or being distracted by another person, maybe you can do the two things at the same time, so you could get more students instead of the student just waiting there.”
Zachary had another important question, though. “What is a Chromebook?”
The students will find out about that in September, when they are given their laptops to use during the school day. The school will also help families buy their own to use at home.