Transcription of the episode “Anna Allanbrook on Brooklyn New School: Centering children, marginalizing tests”

Amy H-L: 00:15 Hi, I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.

Jon M: 00:17 And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools, where we discuss strategies for creating inclusive and equitable schools and youth programs that help students to develop both commitment and capacity to build ethical institutions.

Amy H-L: 00:30 Our guest today is Anna Allanbrook. Anna has led the Brooklyn New School or BNS, also known as PS146, since 1997. BNS describes itself as offering experiential inquiry-based learning and being focused on teaching the whole child. Teachers are encouraged to develop curriculum integrating arts, science, physical education, health, language, numeracy and exploration. BNS is also known as the opt out school.95% of BNS families opt out of standardized testing and the school does no test preparation. Welcome, Anna.

Anna A: 01:11 Hello, nice to be here.

Jon M: 01:12 Anna, what are the key principles that distinguish the Brooklyn New School?

Anna A: 01:16 It was founded in 1987 by a group of parents and teachers who wanted something a little bit different and I think there were three big ideas. One idea is that students need to go to school with children from different communities, different backgrounds, different life experiences than theirs. So it started with a mandate to have a lottery, which had one third black, one third Latino and one third other students. And that of course has changed over the years. But that idea of bringing communities together was one big concept. Also the ideas of heterogeneous grouping, parent involvement and project-based inquiry based learning.

Amy H-L: 01:59 Well, we often speak about ethics as being focused on the quality of relationships. Could you tell us a little about the relationships among the teachers and administrators at BNS, between the teachers and students and between the school and its families?

Anna A: 02:15 I think that relationship is at the heart of everything, right? So, it’s interesting as I listened to this question. I was a teacher at the Brooklyn New School and we went through some growing pains back in 1996 and there was a discussion about how we could administer the school differently and the decision was made to have two teacher directors and I was asked by my colleagues and the parents to step into the role of one of the teacher director positions. So that’s how I ended up in this, in this role. I was just a teacher, had no plans to be a principal and actually eventually we had to go back, those of us in the teacher director role had to go to school to become, because the Department of Education would not allow, there was a lawsuit and they decided that schools could not be run by teacher directors. So that’s how I became a principal. But the point, the reason I told that story, it’s really important to understand that I am someone who works with my colleagues. I’m not above them, I’m side by side with them, with the teachers. So the teachers have a very, very strong voice in the Brooklyn New School. And a lot of the work we do is around making sure the teacher relationships are strong. And at the same time, parents have to feel a part of this institution. So we do a lot of work to include parents from the day the child’s admitted to the school and all the way through for those six, seven years that child is in the school. I don’t think you can leave out the child. The child is the most important person in this place. So the thing that I value what I am thinking about it–it is ethical is this idea of everyone in the community, everyone who enters that building, having a voice, having a say, having some kind of power.

Jon M: 04:06 Thank you. Progressive education is sometimes seen as more attractive to middle-class parents than to low income or to some immigrant parents. You prioritize low income students in admissions. What’s been your experience with who seeks the school out and why?

Anna A: 04:20 That’s a great question. We, there’s so many different reasons people seek the school out. We are very fortunate to have a huge application pool, which makes us, that’s part of what makes our school strong, just being wanted. And it’s interesting, I mean obviously it’s word of mouth. It’s one person talks to someone else who talks to someone else and people hear, “Oh that’s a good school.” But what a good school is means different things to different folks. To some people it’s around that progressive curriculum and student voice. And for other families, it’s around being safe, feeling that this is a place where their child will be safe. There won’t be fights and bullying and so on. For some families, it’s around making sure there’s art, enrichment, and going on field trips, For other families, it’s, “Will you teach my child to read,” you know. So it really is a broad gamut of need. We’ve also over the many years really worked hard to improve our special education work. When we first started, we would often attract families who had children who were having some kind of learning needs, some kind of struggle. But frankly, we didn’t have all of the services that we needed to have to support those students. So over the years we’ve worked to improve our toolbox and we do a lot of work around special education. We have classrooms with two teachers, integrative, collaborative teaching. We have a lot of related service providers, speech, physical therapy, OT, counseling, of course, all of that. So having all of the people in the building who can support the students and not seeing that as a negative, “My child gets special ed,” but rather as a sort of like a really fancy restaurant with lots of options. Lots of, lots of different foods.

Jon M: 06:06 I noticed you have about, on the state website, I think it is about 30% of students have special needs, which is very high in terms of city schools. Was that a deliberate decision or did it just sort of happen?

Anna A: 06:20 Yeah, it’s a little bit of both. I think it started with having students who had the needs and weren’t getting the services and then fighting to get them the services, and that goes way back to the 90s, and then gradually becoming known as a school that had special ed services. So when you had asked that question before about who’s attracted to the school, we get a lot of families that choose the school because of the special education. So we are now known as having special education services. So people come to our school and say, will you work with our child who needs whatever it is that child needs. And that range has increased over the many years that we’ve been doing this work. So yeah, it’s 30%. And I think it’s also, I want to say one more thing about that. With not being afraid to give children services. Sadly, sometimes children in New York don’t get services because it costs money. And so sometimes I’ve heard people say, “Well, I’m not supposed to give services,” even when the services are needed. So it’s also being willing to explore all of the possibilities for what will help a child to do well. And that’s at the, you know, at the IEP meeting.

Amy H-L: 07:31 What about English language learners?

Anna A: 07:34 Yeah, that’s a great question. We actually, interesting, when we were a part of that diversity pilot that you mentioned before, which was simply a way, um, that started, I don’t know how many years ago, four years ago or so, where we got involved with other, I think there was seven schools in the original cohort, where we said, we need to make sure that our school continues to bring in a wide range of students and families. And we were allowed to design the lottery, who would we prioritize. And we made a decision not to include, not that we, we will certainly take children who for whom English is a new language, but not to prioritize it just because we felt that our school didn’t have the services that would be needed. That in fact there are in New York a lot of wonderful dual language programs where a child can go to school and actually be educated in the language that they speak at home. And that, I think, is a wonderful option. We felt if we were going to do something like that, we needed to do it well and so we decided not to sign on to that as a school that was already established, although to encourage other schools to get started and do that. So we don’t have a language program. We do of course have an ESL teacher, but I think that’s a little bit different than dual language. So do we have new language learners? We do, but in comparison, just as that special ed figure is way high, our English as a second language figure is way low. So in comparison, which doesn’t mean we don’t get those children, we don’t get them the way many schools do. Right. That makes a lot of sense actually knowing what you do best and what others are more able to accommodate.

Amy H-L: 09:16 So how do you make parents comfortable who are accustomed to a more traditional learning style? Does that even arise as an issue?

Anna A: 09:27 Oh, it totally arises as an issue. Even, sadly, I remember last year, we had two children in our kindergarten who just left the school in like October, November even. And we found out that they just didn’t like that there was no homework in kindergarten, that their child was playing all day and so on. And the teacher was very sad because he felt like he had communicated so well with these families. He was so disappointed that they just left without expressing their concerns. And so the point about that is we keep working on that. I don’t think it’s something we figured out completely. In the fall, we have a parent breakfast where we try to explain, especially in early childhood and preK and kindergarten, what it is we’re doing in school. We also have these one on one meetings with all of our families when school starts in September, and so we try to communicate as much as we can when we do the registration. We have, my parent coordinator takes families on a tour, shows the upper grades just deliberately to say, look, they’re not reading and writing in pre-K or kindergarten, but look at all this reading and writing you’re seeing in third and fourth grade. So we try to explain it, but it’s not something that always works. Sometimes it’s so different from what a parent has experienced in school, and those first few years are crucial. I find as the time goes on, parents begin to see it and understand it because they see their child changing in relation to the education that they’ve had and suddenly they find that kid coming home and talking to them about all these big ideas that they’ve been learning in school. Lo and behold, reading and writing, and then they see that it’s working. But until they get to that place, it can be for some families very almost anxiety-producing cause it’s so different from their own education. And that’s something that’s not just about race and class because frankly, as someone who went to a very traditional school, that’s for all of us who had a very different educational experience than what we’re offering.

Jon M: 11:30 In a somewhat related vein, progressive schools are sometimes criticized for teaching reading in ways most aligned where children have lots of literacy resources. Is this something that you struggle with? How do you differentiate instruction for children coming from different literacy backgrounds?

Anna A: 11:46 That’s a really great question. I think that gets at what we were talking before about special education, it’s not really special education. All good education is about what does that individual child need. And so within a classroom, our teachers need to have a lot of strategies for teaching reading. It’s not one size fits all. And therefore because we have so much special education, we have many teachers who are trained in different programs. And not only are trained, we actually keep researching and keep finding an approach to reading that maybe is going to work for this particular child. So it’s literally knowing what’s out there, knowing all of the good research=based programs and being able to choose the right one for the right child. So it’s not like every child has the same approach to reading and writing. Some kids pick it up almost organically, it feels like, and that’s fine, but there are many children who need that direct instruction and also the individual instruction. And that’s why it’s, and I also like to emphasize, it’s not just that classroom teacher teaching the child. We have an intervention team in early childhood and in the upper grades. We have, in addition to the classroom teacher doing some reading assessments, other people come in and help. We will do pullout if necessary, push in, whatever we need to do to develop those reading skills. But our goal is that we know every child is a reader. And that by the end of, I think where we are a little bit different is we’re looking at first grade reading level more than kindergarten reading level. We see kindergarten as a readiness year and first grade is a real reading year, but by the end of first grade we need to know they’re reading so they can tackle second grade.

Amy H-L: 13:29 So shifting gears to testing and opting out, could you just give us some background on the evolution of the role of standardized testing over the last couple of decades?

Anna A: 13:42 Sure. That’s a great question because you start with decades, not years. And I think back to my own, well, my own personal children who are well into their thirties and also to myself as a teacher back in the late eighties and early nineties and I remember that testing was always, we didn’t like the tests back then, but they took place over two days and they were basically 45 minutes for two days and then you sort of forgot about them. There was no test prep, there was no really paying attention even to the scores. You just got the scores, the kids would get them in their June progress report and nobody paid much attention. However, as a teacher, I always found the tests helpful in one way that sometimes I would be able to communicate with a parent about a struggle a child was having when they saw that low test score. It would like, sometimes they didn’t trust me, but they trusted that piece of paper. So go back to that in the late eighties and then you go to this sudden switch where testing became the be all and end all of education. And it happened in two ways. In, in the early 2000s it became about No Child Left Behind and everyone had to catch up, right? Nobody could be behind, whatever that means. And so I think it was by 2011, everyone would be on grade level and that’s exactly what they did. They made those tests less and less challenging and pretty soon you couldn’t really tell the difference from one child’s exam to the other in terms of what a child really could or couldn’t do in reading or in math. The questions were really not challenging and you went from tests that really were just plain old inappropriate to tests that were almost useless as a data tool.

Anna A: 15:35 And of course some point they woke up, they said that’s not gonna work. And then the Common Core learning standards came along and they went the complete other extreme. And they created these exams where children were really, the first year that we administered those tests, we saw head banging, we saw, we saw a child throw up, crying. It was a really different experience than we’d had in the previous years. And I think it was literally a year later or so that one of the parents in our school came to us and said her child was a third grade child. She also had a diagnosis of dyslexia. And the parent came and said, my child will not be taking the tests. And I said to her, you can’t do that. Everyone has to take the state test. She said, no, my child will not be taking the test and I have a right to opt my child out of the test. So that’s how it started. That one leader and all the followers, and she was that leader. By the year later, she had four or five families opting the children out and the next year I think it was about 80%. And we as a staff, this was happening while we were becoming aware of this negative impact that the tests were having in terms of the children’s behavior, on the day of the test, prior to the test and so on. Parents’ anxiety around the test and everyone using the test as the be all and end all of their education, almost forgetting about the other days of the year. And we began to become more outspoken ourselves as a staff. I can specifically remember a meeting in which our entire third, fourth and fifth grade teachers got together in the fifth grade classroom and they talked to each other and they said, we will all agree not to do any test prep from now on. That all of our education will be about the curriculum that we teach each and every day, and we will not stop a month or three weeks before the test and do test prep. And they agreed to that. And that was all as this parent movement was building. So it was really interesting because we became leaders in it, but it was sort of happening simultaneously with a parent frustration. Once we made that decision as staff and once our parents made that decision as parents, it was incredibly freeing. You suddenly realized we could continue to do the good teaching that we were doing and we would continue to be perceived as a good school because the curriculum would continue to be rich, but we would no longer disrupt it, if you will, with the impact of the standardized tests. And I also want to, of course, give Diane Ravitch credit. She was speaking a lot at that time. And one of the things she kept saying that stuck with me was this concept of denying the state the data. And if there was no data how could they measure your school? And that really worked for the Brooklyn New School.

Jon M: 18:23 So how do you do this in an actual process? How do you explain it to parents coming in the pros and cons, what it means, that it doesn’t mean their child won’t get into middle school or these kinds of questions.

Anna A: 18:36 It’s such a balancing act because we also have to be very careful of not telling the parents. In other words, we are not allowed to encourage or support opt out. So we have to make sure that what we are simply saying are the facts, if you will, as opposed to an opinion. And so that’s where the parents have been a very important part. So all of this is coming. We have a parent action committee that organizes meetings with fellow parents about the standardized tests and the reasons that they have opted their own children out. And we will talk more theoretically about the quality of the education that we do every day. And also perhaps looking at the state website, which has sample test questions on it. And the difference between that and what we’re doing every day. Parents only start really becoming interested when their kids are getting to those years, which is third grade. Sometimes they’re curious in second grade. If you look at the kindergarten book where parents are learning about the schools, it actually says under the testing data section for Brooklyn New School, it says not applicable. So, so that really works in our favor, that is not applicable. And therefore parents sort of know from the get go that we don’t have the scores as data at our school and it becomes a part of the culture of the school in a way.

Jon M: 20:00 So of course, one of the reasons New York City, you know, has fewer opt outs than a lot of the rest of the state, like Long Island for example, is because of this use of the tests for admission to middle school. So how do you deal with that?

New Speaker: 20:13 Yeah, well I don’t know if you know, but District 15 is leading the city in this diversity pilot for the middle schools. So as of this was the first year, there are no screens for admission to middle school in district 15. They do not look at attendance. They do not look at test scores. They don’t even look at teacher progress reports. And that’s been very freeing. That was this year. So for this year it really made no difference whatsoever. In the past we had to deal with it by reassuring parents that Dstrict 15 middle schools were looking at the whole child, that they weren’t just looking at test scores. They were looking at everything about this child and we had that record. We had enough of our students getting into all of the quote unquote desirable schools that parents were reassured. So I do think we had a unique situation in which we are a school with a pretty good reputation and that kind of helped us along the way. It would have been harder if that was not the case for our school.

Jon M: 21:13 I understand that instead of the standardized tests you use performance based assessment in order to report to parents and the students. Could you talk a little bit about performance based assessment?

Anna A: 21:26 The performance based assessment work we started years ago and it’s mostly in–we perfected it in ELA but not in math. It’s still a goal to do something like this in math. But what we do is every teacher, a colleague, generally three or four adults. It could be a parent and could be a visiting educator from elsewhere. You could come next year. They have a series of questions. We ask the child about their work and the work is related to something they’ve done in social studies. So it changes as they get older. So in third grade they’ve been studying Africa and it’s a project they’ve done related, they’d written historical fiction on New Amsterdam and it’s related to that. And in fifth grade it’s been related to the research paper they’ve done about the Maya. [Inaudible], but it’s an oral discussion, if you will, sort of like what they do in the high schools, performance based assessment tasks, and every child does this. Then discussing afterwards how the child did and then a written narrative that describes that work and what we think, what we’re interested in, which is a child’s ability to think and to talk and to think about a big [inaudible] as they examine that big, big idea, the metacognitive piece and that’s what we value. And so that’s what we assess. And that’s in grades three, four.

Amy H-L: 22:39 Anna, you’ve mentioned that this aligns with an emphasis on social emotional learning or SEL. Could you talk about that a little?

Anna A: 22:48 Yeah, I certainly can. I really think, I think we started at the very beginning of this discussion about the idea of relationship. And so children [inaudible] in school and so from the very beginning, from the first day of pre-K all the way through, there’s an emphasis on that child’s feelings. And we really, really spend a lot of time thinking about that, working on that. Everything that we do is embedded in that, you know, that’s embedded in everything we do. Let me say it that way. For example, we work with Leslie Koplow who’s from Bank Street College of Education and our teachers are trained in what’s called Emotionally Responsive Practice. One of the curriculums that Leslie has is a Teddy bear curriculum where the children have Teddy bears and they sort of project themselves and their feelings onto these Teddy bears that become a part of their classroom environment. And I use that as an example because that’s in early childhood, but that idea of becoming comfortable with the self and learning, who you are and feeling willing to put the self out there into the world. That’s at the heart of everything from that preK classroom with the Teddy bear all the way to fifth grade, where you’re having a lot of discussion about social justice and empathy and taking care of each other and you know, human rights and all of the rest of it.

Anna A: 24:13 It’s really essential work. And I think the other piece when you’re talking about social emotional learning is student voice. That our students learn pretty early on that, that what they think counts, what they believe matters. And not only does it [inaudible] count to matter, but that they, I’m have a responsibility to express their ideas and share it with the world. And it’s really kind of amazing to watch the sort of transformative nature of that emphasis because you’ll watch a child come in and I’m thinking of one child who came to us in second grade and never said a word. And by the time she graduated this year in fifth grade, she was a really outspoken, strong member of our community. And so that’s something I’m really proud of and I think it’s a, a big part of what we value.

Jon M: 25:00 It’s interesting that you mentioned Leslie Koplow and emotionally responsive practice. We recently had a blog post by Noelle Dean and Margaret Blatchly on Emotionally Responsive Practice. So for any of our listeners, you can go to our website,, and read some of what Anna’s talking about.

Amy H-L: 25:19 I’m not clear on how supporting opt out aligns with SEL.

Anna A: 25:26 Because the test is one day in a life. We know where the tests are coming from. We know that they’re all about money and that they’re all about corporations making more money and they really have nothing to do with the children learning. If you trust teachers, teachers know how well our children read and write, add and subtract and so on. So the knowledge is in the room and SEL is all about taking care of each other. And I really don’t think a test made by an outsider, which is administered to everyone and often has many mistakes, tells you very much about that child other than what you already know. And that’s, if it’s a good test, maybe it tells you something you already know, but it’s not new information. So the tests become a huge distraction from the work of schools, which is to develop the citizens, empowered citizens, who are smart, articulate, and you know, ready to conquer the world and bring themselves to the world. It is important to understand. I think when you’re not in the classroom, people don’t really know how disruptive tests can be, but when you’re in the classroom, um, and I’m not against tests, I do think there’s a place for tests, again, as an assessment tool. Assessment, as you probably know, comes from the Latin, which means assessis, to sit beside. And that’s what we want tests to do. Standardized tests don’t do that. They really are a distraction and they are a sorting system so we can sort children into groups of smart and not smart. And that’s also not very useful.

Amy H-L: 27:05 What I’m hearing is that trust is a central focus for BNS. I mean trusting the teachers, the students, the parents. Is that correct?

Anna A: 27:16 Yes. Trust is at the heart of everything. Because as a principal, I can’t be in every classroom every minute of every day. So one of my jobs as principal is to, along with my colleagues, to hire well, to hire people that I can trust are going to have the best interests of the students at heart and to be spending all day, every day immersed in that teaching and learning process. And then what’s exciting about my role is I get to sort of savor it and get to walk in and see that musical or see the artwork or hear a panel discussion on some big idea or whatever. Go to the museum. The kids create these wonderful museums and experience them. But day to day work is done by the teachers. And of course the parents, the parents are a big part of it, too. And therefore it’s about creating structures that allow people to do their best work, to bring their best selves into the classroom. And yes, trusting them also to let them know that they can make a mistake. And when you make a mistake, you go back, you reflect on the mistake and then you do it better next time. So that with schools are really, they’re incredible places. I love the annual thing of schools. You know, September to June, you get to do it over again every year. And that’s a really wonderful thing that happens in schools. We’re, we’re very fortunate, those of us who work in schools like the Brooklyn New School, we get to think together, learn together, and create together every year. But it’s not one person, there’s no authority in the building. It’s all of us together doing this work.

Jon M: 28:53 Is there anything that you’d like to add that we haven’t asked about?

Anna A: 28:57 Oh gosh. I guess I would add, it’s huge. I often think people don’t, the task of schools is such a big task. Especially you mentioned Trump’s America at the beginning. And I really do believe that if we, if all schools were these welcoming institutions where kids could really flourish and thrive, we wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in right now. But unfortunately most of us didn’t go to schools like that. And most of us are not going to schools like this. And that’s a sad thing, that it’s not the rule, it’s the exception. And that’s my hope is to one day for it to be more, more standard, that it’s not unique cause it’s nothing that we’re doing that’s that special. It’s just humans taking care of humans.

Amy H-L: 29:45 Well, I beg to disagree with you. I think you’re doing a lot of very special and important work. Thank you so much, Anna Allanbrook of BNS for joining us.

Anna A: 29:58 Thank you.

Jon M: 29:59 And thank you listeners for joining us. You can check out our podcast episodes and articles at our website, We’re on Facebook, Twitter @ethicalschools and Instagram. Till next week.

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