Explore Empower Charter School
Two teachers in every K-5 classroom, orderly environment
No foreign-language classes
For seven years, the Explore charter organization supported a single K-8 school focused on small class sizes, the Explore Charter School in Flatbush. Yet the growing network's second K-8 school, Empower Charter, has created an even lower ratio of 14 students per teacher. "When we decided to serve more kids, we saw that high-performing schools are using two teachers in the classroom," said Morty Ballen, the CEO of Explore Schools Inc. "That's our model going forward."
Empower is earning its role as the network's new flagship. The school supports its classroom teachers with ample additional staff. During our visit, the resulting boost in personalized attention for students was obvious. Staff members often were working with one to four children in offices. One teacher sat in the hallway for several minutes challenging a student to say what choices he would make to improve his reading level. We saw two 3rd-grade teachers each direct small reading groups, uninterrupted for 15 minutes, as a handful of other students quietly read or wrote. Also benefiting students: at times half the students in a class leave for art, music, or gym.
Founded in 2009, Empower is adding a grade each year and will be a fully grown K-8 school in 2016. It shares a building with PS/IS 394, another K-8 school. After a five-flight climb up narrow, caged stairs, Empower's top-floor space feels spacious and peaceful, with its windowed classrooms, a wide hallway, a sunny art room, and a bright gym. The school playground was recently renovated. As Empower expands, it will move into fourth-floor classrooms, taking space currently controlled by IS 394, which could become a point of tension.
Explore network schools divide the year into five terms, with a weeklong break between each. Issuing report cards every eight weeks pushes teachers to frequently adjust their teaching plan for each student. As with many charters, Empower's teachers are nonunionized and students must wear uniforms (light-blue polo shirts, black pants and shoes). The school day runs from 8:20 a.m. to 3:20 p.m.
Empower's hallways prominently display reports and projects that promote creative thinking. Each class picks a reader of the week, who fills out a reading questionnaire that gets posted on the wall. Students take science, social studies, art, and gym two or three times a week. Empower's art program often links projects with students' other subjects: The art room featured clay gargoyles that 3rd graders created in conjunction with a study of France, and kindergarten and 1st-grade students crafted a gallery of paper-bag people in conjunction with a social studies lesson on community.
In the few classes we were allowed to observe, students were well engaged and teachers rarely resorted to a schoolwide system of strategies designed to maintain focus. A 2nd-grade science lesson about water's reactivity with different substances drew in students and required them to hypothesize about the results they observed.
The school does not offer foreign-language instruction in the elementary school grades, although it plans to offer a foreign language when it grows to include a middle school. One parent expressed concern that the school may not be keeping her daughter, an advanced reader, engaged. Parents were also disconcerted that the founding principal departed shortly before the start of the 2010-11 year, but say they have a good impression of the new principal, Beth Doyle, who arrived in December 2010. For the benefit of working parents, local after-school programs pick up students at Empower.
Special Education: Each grade has at least one certified special education teacher. The school provides special education support services for 7.7 percent of the students.
Admissions: Lottery, District 17 preference. (Matt Fleischer-Black, March 2011)
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Brooklyn NY 11213