Tuesday August, 11, 2015, the day was finally here.
It was the day when 50 or so kindergarteners and their parents— from Park Slope, Brownsville, Fort Greene, Crown Heights, including recent immigrants from places like Cambodia, Ecuador and Nigeria— gathered for an orientation for the soon-to-open International Charter School of New York, located at 55 Willoughby Street in Brooklyn.
The school’s founder, Matthew Levey, and the school’s principal, Ellen Borenstein, looked around the room, looked back at each other. And smiled.
All of their efforts had paid off: all of the flyering at restaurants, beer gardens and public housing projects; all of the meetings at libraries, with community boards and even in some private homes. The school’s board of directors, administrators and teachers, together had achieved the socio-economic diversity they had envisioned– to be a true reflection of the borough, a community school where children, regardless of their economic means or cultural background, had access to the same set of keys.
“Whether you’re from single-parent household in East Flatbush or live in a townhouse on South Oxford, you should have the same access to that same vocabulary language,” said Levey. “Every kid should have an equal chance to speak their mind, be heard and make their mark.”
Borenstein added, “And what was really special about that whole experience was that these people came on our journey with us before we even had a building to show them. We were selling the school without a teacher, without a book, without a crayon … All we had was faith.”
When Borenstein– a 16-year educator who also worked as an assistant principal and curriculum advisor– took one look around the room that day, she understood the great responsibility before her: “I said to myself, I am going to make sure the teaching is good, the curriculum is good. That is the piece I am most passionate about.”
The school’s biggest attraction to parents was its unique approach to teaching and learning— one where math, numeracy and reading would be taught through a global, historical and cultural lens.
So far, the school seems to be achieving these goals. Only two months into the 2015 school year, and the school’s first graders can talk about the unification of upper and lower Egypt (in their young minds, it’s the story about the Red King and the White King); they now understand and can map out in a diagram the skeletal, muscular and nervous systems of the body; and they can respond to basic commands in Spanish.
The kindergarten and first-grade classes of 115 students occupy the beautifully renovated 2nd and 3rd floors of a building formerly the high school division of Brooklyn Friends School, located in the heart of downtown Brooklyn, near Metro Tech Center.
Levey, who, prior to founding the charter school, worked as an education consultant and a diplomat for seven years with the U.S. State Department for Eastern Europe and South America, pointed out that the international charter school is not necessarily modeled on the more widely known International Baccalaureate Program out of Switzerland.
The international aspect “is just a broad approach to educating children through a world that is bigger than Brooklyn,” he said.
And the kids do not undergo any rigorous testing, Levey added. They are read history-based children’s stories or discuss topics with their teachers, and then they are encouraged to interpret its meaning through age-appropriate discovery, such as art, music, dance or play.
“They go from Mesopotamia to the fall of the Roman Empire between kindergarten and first grade. But we are not grilling them,” said Levey. “It’s didactic without beating them over the head, so they’re just constantly learning.”
Their “movement class” (a.k.a physical education) includes weekly yoga sessions and emphasizes memorization through rhythm and dance, led by an instructor from the Mark Morris Dance Group.
In 2016, International Charter School of New York will take in another 120 students, primarily kindergarteners, and continue enrolling new kindergarteners each year while back-filling some of the higher grades until the school reaches K-8.
“Everyone is different,” said Borenstein. “People are raised differently, have different experiences and may have a different set of values. But regardless if they are in an upwardly mobile family or maybe even with a mother in a shelter, we are starting all the children at the same ground level, education-wise, to prepare for the future.”
“One child struggled mightily to fit in at the start, taxing the school’s staff. Today, after only nine weeks, she is settling down and emerging as a strong student,” said Levey. “That to us is a program of social justice.You’re [giving them] the keys to unlock this curious system out there and be treated as an equal. It’s a liberal arts approach to building the well-rounded scholar.
“The parents are very engaged and committed already. They are already out there with postcards and flyers in their laundry rooms, in their community boards, pediatrician’s office distributing information for next year, wanting to spread the word.”
“For me, bar none, that is what I am most proud of,” said Borenstein, “that we are able to make a home for all of these kids, and that their families are on that journey with us.”
International Charter School of New York still has seats open for kindergarteners and first-graders. There are two orientations scheduled in early November for 2016 enrollment, and the next scheduled lottery is April 1 (check their website for more details).
Please note, selection preference is given to the siblings of current students and residents of District 13.