Compass Charter School
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Multiracial school with an emphasis on inquiry and exploration
Some concerns about discipline and order
Compass Charter, an arts and sustainability-minded school in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood, has a garden, an eco-team and classrooms named for trees found in nearby Fort Greene Park. The school emphasizes exploration and play and has a policy of no homework in the lowest grades.
Families come from a range of economic circumstances. Some walk from the single or multi-family brick homes in the area; others get on a school bus in Prospect Heights, or outside the Farragut, Walt Whitman or Fenimore-Lefferts public housing developments. Parents work as artists, police officers, musicians, teachers, filmmakers and store clerks. It is an unusually multiracial, multiethnic school community.
"We started Compass to provide a progressive educational model to children who typically don't get access to progressive education: children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and children with special needs," says co-founder Brooke Peters. "Our definition of sustainability includes the living environment, social justice and economic justice."
The school’s three founders came from the progressive Community Roots, another District 13 charter school. They drew inspiration for Compass from a cross-country journey dubbed the Odyssey Initiative, during which they visited 41 successful schools in 16 states. Peters, a former kindergarten and 1st grade teacher with literacy expertise, and Michelle Healy, a math specialist trained in special education, spend most of their time supporting teachers, while the third partner, Todd Sutler, formerly co-teacher with Healy, oversees operations and finance.
The school day runs 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. four days a week, and until 1:00 p.m. on Wednesday to allow for teacher meetings and training. The longer day provides the equivalent of three extra weeks of instruction, founders say.
Classrooms are informal and inviting, with rugs, blocks, books, plants and animals. School leaders describe the instruction as "inquiry-based": Students ask their own questions and set out to find answers. They might observe the habits of mealworms, for instance, writing down what they notice and keeping charts about what mealworms eat.
The school uniform consists of different colored t-shirts with the name of the school on the front. "Kids need time to explore and inquire,” Peters says. “We do a lot of stuff that's going to mess up their clothes: papier-mâché, painting, working in a garden, and a lot of walking."
There are two teachers in every classroom. All classes incorporate students with special needs, who make up roughly one-quarter of the school population. "The more teachers in the room, the more small groups you can have," says Healy. Additionally, teachers "loop," keeping the same group of students for two years; K-1, 2-3 and 4-5.
Test scores in the school’s first year of testing were low. In response, the founders hired a part-time math coach and a literacy coach, and offered optional test prep after school twice a week, for six weeks, for 3rd- and 4th-graders, in addition to other measures.
Parents don’t seem worried. One praises the fact that kids get a “good foundation for how to think and solve problems.” Several say they appreciate that their children enjoy learning, which is not how some of their friends’ kids feel at more structured schools with higher scores.
“The school's aim is for children to engage deeply with their work, rather than to push them to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible,” one father tells InsideSchools.
Some teachers flagged discipline and order as a work-in-progress on school surveys. In most classrooms we visited, two or more kids stood or sat on the margins of the group during a lesson, sometimes by choice, and sometimes as a disciplinary act, called "take a break," to allow a child to regain self-control. Sutler says the school follows the Responsive Classroom approach, in which accommodations are made for students who need different kinds of support.
The father of a kindergartner and a 4th-grader notes that the older grades were “more chaotic than anyone wanted” in the school’s first few years, but he commends the responsiveness of the co-founders, and says he has seen improvement over the years. "We have seen a dramatic improvement in this area," said Peters in an email.
To ensure a diverse student body, the school has set aside 40 percent of its seats to students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch. Compass has had to recruit heavily within a five-mile radius to meet this goal as other schools also vie to fill their own set-aside quotas, Sutler says. At the time of our visit, Compass had roughly 32 percent from this demographic.
ADMISSIONS: Lottery, with priority given to children in District 13. The school accepts new students in every grade. (Lydie Raschka, February 2018)Read more