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Opportunity Grows in Brooklyn: How One High School Rebounded From COVID  Re-engaging Students & Rest

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

Written by Marianna Murdock

Original Article Posted on The 74, June 26, 2023

After the pandemic, leaders at Brooklyn Laboratory Charter High School prioritized team-taught classes, full special ed inclusion & student advisories.

Steps from the waterfront that overlooks Manhattan’s iconic skyline, high schoolers shuffle into an office building where educators have erected a boastful sign: “Best Kept Secret in Brooklyn.”

Brooklyn Laboratory Charter High School can most certainly be counted among the borough’s hidden gems for its innovative approaches to challenges that now plague schools nationwide.

Getting students back on track to graduate. Decreasing absenteeism. Supporting students’ and teachers’ well-being, all while preparing for the end of pandemic relief funds next year. Two Brooklyn-raised Black women, who reflect much of the student body at the small 9th to 12th grade college prep school, are leading Lab Charter High School into a new era coming out of the pandemic, revamping the status quo that left many educators exhausted and students dissatisfied.

Leaders and staff went to the drawing board, mining for solutions that filled gaps and brought joy back into school.

Brooklyn Lab Charter’s social workers visited nearly 100 homes to find students, as absenteeism soared post-pandemic. Each student has a personal advocate both at school and with their families, an advisor who starts each day with a non-academic meeting to build relationships and discuss health or current events over free breakfast. Free photo booths, music, dinner, sports and games await those who show up on-time at weekly “No-Tardy Parties.”

Two teachers now lead each class, at least one of whom is special education certified, as the school adopts an all-inclusion-model. Morning office hours and a 6-week night school offer more chances for students to bridge academic gaps made worse by the pandemic. Teachers are now paid to lead and attend professional development sessions.

“I’m really proud of the work that we’ve done to strengthen us where we need to be strengthened,” said CEO Garland Thomas-McDavid, who became a career educator after growing up in a low-income Brooklyn neighborhood, becoming a teen mother and dropping out of high school.

“Most schools are experiencing a lot of the same challenges… Everyone was facing staff shortages, everyone was facing a great resignation.”

Amid the uncertainty, she and her team are finding new solutions to provide rigorous academic opportunities for students of color and students with disabilities who are frequently ignored and left unchallenged.

Valentina Lopez-Cortes leads ninth grade students in a reading and reflection exercise during a required seminar course. (Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools)

“I’m not going to lower the bar,” she said. “I’m not going to go quietly into the night because I always think, what about the parent who can’t speak up? What about the parent who doesn’t have the resources? What about the parent who doesn’t even know what to ask for?”

Excellence is personal for Thomas-McDavid, a mother of five and parent to a 10th grader at Brooklyn Lab Charter. Having navigated special education services for her youngest, she knows how draining it can be for parents trying to advocate for what their children deserve. And being a native of East New York, where some students also live, she knows the difference schools can make.

The change at Brooklyn Lab Charter is palpable. Since October, the school has seen a 15% decrease in daily absences. Students and staff say students are more excited to come to school amid an almost-180 degree shift, after years of feeling flatlined. Nearly all, about 96%, of teachers are returning next school year.

“It was visible to some teachers that things had to change. This year at every opportunity, we’re trying to implement feedback, changes, updates…Just be in a space where we are not only reacting, but intentionally reacting.”

Jeckesan Mejia, Brooklyn Lab Dean of instruction

Over a hundred students participate in nine new sports, from e-Gaming to basketball. A washer and dryer is open to all and a prayer room was set up during Ramadan.

Roughly 80% of teachers are Black or brown, serving about 450 students who are predominantly Black, Latino and low-income.

“When you’re a school of this size, you have the ability to respond and cater to the community that you’re serving, and be more personable with the families that you meet, the people that you work with, and the staff that you hire,” assistant principal Melissa Poux told The 74.

The school’s high expectations have continued since the school’s inception.

External partnerships bring students into college classes at nearby universities. Mandatory AP classes and a microeconomics course at a local college helped senior Daniel Shelton see a future in law. His time management skills got better; he learned how to keep focus and retain info from long lectures.

“It really opened my eyes,” Shelton said. “Prior to that, I would have really never known and been able to prepare myself to have the level of dedication to study — I had to devote all my weekends to it. And honestly I wouldn’t take any second back.”

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