The first graduating class of Brooklyn Lab High School spent their middle and high school career moving between three campuses as the school grew in private facilities in downtown Brooklyn, New York. Students would work on projects at workstations in hallways or attend small group tutoring on the theater stage if they needed a space to get work done. In their last year of high school, Brooklyn Lab 12th graders endured a once-in-a-century pandemic that upended almost everything in their lives. Still, they kept on studying and forging new traditions, never losing sight of their goals and serving as role models for the students who are coming up after them.
In the end, 75 percent of the students in Brooklyn Lab’s first graduating class will attend a four-year college in the fall.
“Of all the things this class accomplished, the thing I’m most proud of is the way they’ve persevered,” said Harcourt Lucius, the school’s director of college success. “They always saw the light at the end of the tunnel. I have no doubt, they are ready for the challenge of college and everything that lies ahead.”
Brooklyn Lab’s emphasis on student independence and self-agency made that possible. And, last month, the graduating class at Brooklyn Lab had the chance to reflect on that experience during their graduation ceremony.
Helping to Ensure that All Learners Succeed
Brooklyn Lab opened its doors in 2014 with the aim of connecting students from low-income families to college, meaningful careers, and opportunities that otherwise might not be available to them. With a student population who predominantly identify as Black and Latinx, and a relatively high percentage of immigrants and students with special needs, equity is the core of the school’s mission. Brooklyn Lab’s aim is to provide all students, regardless of their background, an opportunity to succeed in school and life.
To accomplish that, the school offers tailored learning plans and small group supports, flexible scheduling, and a focus on student voice and empowerment.
Among the many tools the school has used to build responsiveness to student and family needs and aspirations is “Student Personas for Empathy-Building,” an interactive website featuring five student personas and the counselors, teachers, and other adults who support them. The site helps educators, families, and school community members understand the most vulnerable students and create a plan for their success during the pandemic.
“The answer here is never a ‘no.’ It’s always, ‘What can we do to help you achieve your goals?’” Lucius said. “Whatever our kids need to be successful, we will provide it. We truly do not leave any child behind. It’s in the DNA of the school.”
In November 2020 the school held an event in which student agency and voice came to life: In the inaugural first TEDxYouth@BrooklynLab event students applied skills learned in classes like speech and debate, to speak about critical issues such as racial justice, adolescent mental health, gender identity, and climate change.
Brooklyn Lab’s approach of embracing student voice proved valuable during the pandemic. With input from families, students, health experts and educators, Brooklyn Lab created a unique hybrid model that gave students the flexibility to learn in a way that worked for them. The flexibility was key to ensuring that all students could continue studying, regardless of their family’s unique circumstances. To help better meet the needs of the Lab community and inspire other schools adapt to the challenges of hybrid and online learning, Brooklyn Lab reached out to founding partners and began to build a repository of resources curated on the Educating All Learners Alliance website, addressing everything from assessments and testing, to special education, to social-emotional well-being.
Including Families and Their Insights in the School Community
The support at Brooklyn Lab extends beyond the students. The school also offers support to students’ families. Outreach and responsiveness to community needs are part of daily life at Brooklyn Lab. Newsletters, phone calls, home visits, family potlucks, game nights, parent meetings, and other forms of outreach and connection help make families feel part of the school community.
This was especially true during the pandemic, when the school established an emergency fund to help families who were experiencing economic, social, and mental hardships. School staff continue to distribute grocery gift cards, help families find housing and procure health insurance, and visit homes just to check in.
The same inclusiveness has held true throughout the reopening and renewal process, when school administrators invited family input so their unique needs could be integrated into plans to reopen. Families shared about this experience during the graduation ceremony.
Serving Students with Special Needs
From the beginning, the school has focused on helping students with disabilities, who are all too often left behind in the school system.
During the pandemic, the school worked with partners to create a scheduling map that gave special consideration to students with unique learning needs, ensuring they received the interventions and extra help they needed. The map also demonstrated how to ensure quality and compliance for integrated classrooms for general education and special education students during a pandemic.
The school also emphasizes the need for a system of assessment and diagnostics, “LEGIT” (lightweight evidence-gathering instruments and tools), to improve the way they serve students with disabilities. Instead of determining what students have learned, good assessments should reveal how students master the building blocks of learning, according to school co-founder Eric Tucker.
Giving Students More Than a Diploma
The support of countless essential workers, and Brooklyn Lab’s relentless efforts to serve each student as an individual, paid off. Not only did every 12th grade student graduate during this period of disrupted learning, but of the school’s 84 seniors, 72 are headed to college. In all, students garnered more than 450 college acceptances. (The 12 who opted not to go straight to college have enlisted in the military or chose a career track.) Students gained entrance to a range of different colleges, including Syracuse University, Fordham University in the Bronx, Rutgers University in New Jersey, Hofstra University on Long Island, Drexel University in Philadelphia, and Hunter College in Manhattan.
School co-founder Eric Tucker said he could not be prouder of the school’s inaugural graduating class. Addressing students and their families at the virtual graduation ceremony, he joined the faculty and staff and congratulated them for their resilience and determination: “You are moving forward with more than a diploma,” Tucker said. “You have built the foundational literacies, fundamental knowledge, and mindsets to take on the world. You are the learners for life that the borough of Brooklyn needs. You are the generous collaborators for tough challenges and original thinkers for an uncertain world that the future demands.”
Erin Mote, Brooklyn Lab cofounder, called the students an inspiration. “They have done so much. They’ve been through so many highs and so many lows, but through it all they have dug deep and persevered and done amazing things,” she said. “These young people are the very best of who we can be. Not only have they grown into amazing young adults, but they’ve found their voice. Voices for social change and justice in their communities.”
A School Centered Around Student Voice and Community
For graduating 12th grader Jada Johnson, that focus on student voice is what makes Brooklyn Lab unique. Johnson felt that teachers and school leaders listened to her opinions and perspective, and took her input seriously, giving her the confidence to advocate for herself and her education.
“Teachers viewed scholars as more than students,” she said. “We were treated as individuals with our own ideas and viewpoints, and that were incorporated into classes and school governance. Brooklyn Lab gave me the strength to use my voice. Now, I’m not afraid to stand up and speak my opinion.”
Johnson, who is heading to Syracuse University to study sports management and health and fitness, said she’ll never forget the highlights of her years at Brooklyn Lab, including trips to California and Washington, D.C., student-produced TED talks that went viral, and seeing her photo displayed at Times Square as part of the XQ Yearbook.
Graduating senior A’janae Curtis said that Brooklyn Lab’s emphasis on community and personal relationships made the difference for her. She felt that her teachers cared about her and appreciated her—not just because of her academic performance, but because they valued her as a person. They believed in her, and she believed in herself.
“Having that kind of trust changed the way I learn,” she said. “The teachers would tailor their lessons to you. They wouldn’t judge you based on grades alone. They got to know you as a whole person.”
For Curtis, Johnson, and other students, Brooklyn Lab’s success coaches played a large role in helping them navigate their educational journeys during the pandemic. The success coaches—teachers, counselors and other adults at the school—helped students process social-emotional challenges and connected them with the support they needed.
Lucius said the students’ belief in themselves helped them overcome the challenges and hardships they faced in their high school career, particularly during the pandemic. While engaged in distance learning, they managed to apply to colleges, map out career paths, and finish school.
“Students were empowered,” he said. “They knew they could get help and support whenever they needed it. They knew that no matter how hard things got, they had the ability to turn their dreams into reality. Working with this class has been a joy. They’ve been through so much, but they rose above. It’s been a beautiful experience.”