The Brooklyn New School, P.S. 146
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Imaginative curriculum and seasoned teachers
Some slow transitions
Brooklyn New School, founded by parents and teachers in 1987 as a progressive alternative to traditional education, has become one of the most sought-after schools in the city. Strong leadership, seasoned teachers, active parents, and an imaginative curriculum combine to make the school an engaging, happy place.
In recent years, BNS has become the center of a rebellion against standardized testing, with some 95 percent of children opting-out or boycotting the state reading and math tests each year. Instead of tests, children complete projects; in lieu of grades on report cards, teachers write a narrative report for each child that outlines progress in each subject area and sets goals for the future.
In the early spring, while other schools are drilling students in test prep, students in grades 3-5 at BNS show off their knowledge by hosting "museums." For example, 4th graders make a Native American "museum" with real deer hide they have scraped and tanned themselves.
Longtime principal Anna Allanbrook, a founding teacher at the school, encourages children to advocate for themselves, to express their opinions, and to speak up in class. On our visit, we were impressed by how well even kindergartners could explain their work.
Parents are encouraged to take part in the life of the school. Every Wednesday morning, they are invited to the school for an activity such as a workshop to explain the math curriculum or a PTA meeting.
Interdisciplinary studies combine science and social studies. Pre-kindergartners may go to the nature playground in Prospect Park to learn about birds and their nests, and kindergartners learn about where water comes from. First-graders cook vegetables they grow themselves in the school garden. Second-graders visit and build bridges, 3rd-graders study China and Africa, and 4th-graders delve into Old New York by writing long historical fiction books. The 5th-grade curriculum is framed around the question "What are you willing to stand up for?" It includes a study of topics such as the civil rights movement, or the Vietnam War.
The school has an eclectic approach to math, drawing on the state's Engage NY curriculum as well as so-called "Singapore Math," based on instruction in that island nation that encourages children to solve problems and show their findings in multiple ways. Teachers also use the progressive Investigations program, which focuses on conceptual understanding. As for literacy, most teachers use fun-to-read books and teach some phonics, spelling and cursive.
Asphalt play yards, a large grassy field, a small playground and climbing equipment surround the school. Children go out every day unless it's below 20 degrees or raining hard. On bad-weather days, students may choose to stay in.
BNS shares a building with MS 448 Brooklyn Secondary School for Collaborative Studies and there is a nice relationship between the kids in the two schools. On one of our visits, high school students listened to children read and supervised their woodworking projects; 11th-grade physics students observed the little kids at play before designing mock playgrounds for a class project of their own.
The school has always been proud of the fact that it serves children from different races and income levels. In recent years, the proportion of white children has grown and the proportion of children receiving free lunch has declined. At the request of the BNS administration, the Department of Education agreed to give priority in admissions to children who receive free or reduced lunch as a way to ensure a mix of children of different income levels in the school.
A possible downside: The progressive approach may not work for everyone, and some parents say children who need more explicit instruction may be left behind. There is very little homework in the early grades, which for parents of struggling students can be frustrating because they don't get a feel for how to reinforce what's happening in class.
Transitions between activities can be slow, and it can take children a while to settle down in some classes. But if students are a little chattier and more active at BNS than at other schools, it doesn't seem to faze teachers or administrators, who believe movement and talk are an integral part of learning.
SPECIAL EDUCATION: On every grade there are classes that mix special and general education students in one room with two teachers, one trained in special education. Two specially trained teachers work in the classrooms or pull out small groups for quiet, concentrated sessions. There is a designated occupational and physical therapy room and other services on-site, including speech and guidance.
ADMISSIONS: Lottery. Priority to districts 13, 14, 15 and 16 and then to other Brooklyn residents. BNS gives priority in kindergarten admissions to children who qualify for free or reduced lunch. Siblings of current students get first priority. There are about 10 tours for prospective parents each year. (Mahalia Watson, December 2015' updated August 2016)