Opportunity grows in Brooklyn: How Brooklyn Lab Charter High School rebounded from the pandemic

Students at Brooklyn Laboratory Charter High School
Seniors Jayla Eady, Anaya Martin and Daniel Shelton reflect on their time at Brooklyn Laboratory Charter as they overlook the Manhattan skyline
Photo by Marianna McMurdock/The 74

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 photobooths, 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. 

“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?”

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

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,” said Jeckesan Mejia, dean of instruction. “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.”

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.”

‘Back in the Lab’

AP biology students listen to a lecture from Iris Perez, now a 12th grade team leader. All Brooklyn Laboratory Charter students are required to take AP courses during their time.Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools

Many of the Lab’s innovations this school year address multiple goals. 

In daily advisory, led by teachers or administrators, students discuss anything from mindfulness and health to current news and how to advocate for yourself. Low-cost “No-Tardy Parties” hosted in the gym help reinforce that school can be a joyful, positive place. 

Their inclusion model for special education also reduces isolation among students, while making classes more accessible and boosting teacher morale.

“Ms. Morales, my co-teacher, is not only my favorite person to work with but she has expedited my development more than I could even imagine,” said first-year earth science teacher and pre-med advisor Branden Medary, who came to the classroom after a career in neuroscience and has bridged a partnership to offer aerospace workshops by New York University students.

“If I’m doing something whack, she will happily pull me aside and be like, ‘Hey, you can do this, this, or this. I know those to work. What do you think?’”

Co-teachers lesson plan together as well so lessons are modified to support students of all ability levels.  

Some families have come specifically because of its inclusive approach to supporting students with disabilities. 

Administrators and teachers at Brooklyn Lab Charter are leaning on each other, too. Staff get paid extra to lead or attend professional development sessions, and now have free access to a local gym. Academic teams are probing deeper into assessment data to see how more subjects can reduce gaps. 

At the start of this school year, math scores showed many students struggled with word problems — at its core, a literacy problem. 

English and history teachers built in more time for reading comprehension, while math teachers introduced a “word problem checklist” to help students past initial panic and freeze-up: read the problem, restate what it’s asking, identify variables, etc. 

“The sheer fact that kids have the ability to check something off allows them to feel that progress, to be a little bit more resilient with what’s in front of them, and hopefully get to that last check.” 

Teachers also offer morning drop-in office hours, usually more amenable to teen’s schedules, particularly those who work. 

Those who need to finish more credits to graduate than is possible during the school day attend a 6-week night school program. 

Cultural responsiveness in and out of the classroom

10th grade students in their seminar class lead each other through an exercise.Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools

Innovations underway boil down to understanding students and their families — being culturally responsive. 

At Brooklyn Lab Charter, administrators, a few of whom spent years at larger network charters criticized for pushing students with disabilities out or cultivating rigid or racist cultures, embrace the bustle that comes with being a school.

Students are themselves in hallways — as loud or as quiet as they want to be. Through the glass walls of the once-office space, hugs, fist-bumps, waves and smiles abound. 

Though their adjustment to being fully back in person was challenging at first, students describe the environment as more engaging and challenging than their previous schools. That they still feel a sense of community, feel welcomed. 

When asked why, the differences that stick with them speak to their experiences and dreams:

In February, dozens of local Black professionals presented and met one on one with students at their first ever “Success Looks like Me” career day, shaped by student input. 

“It’s not everyday that you find somebody from Coney Island who’s up there,” said Brooklyn Lab Charter senior Jayla Eady, an aspiring dermatologist. “Being that we’re from the same place, it shows that I can do it, too.” 

Like all schools, Brooklyn Lab Charter is still working through challenges, including enrollment – which dropped by nearly 100 after they ended remote options this school year – and a $5 million decline in funding as ESSER funds expire in 2024. 

On the student side, attention spans are dwindling as students adjust to the daily grind.

“The only way to allow for the attention to come back is to make things culturally relevant, make things relevant to them and what they can literally walk outside of this building and utilize today,” added Mejia.

Eleventh graders in Karen Asiedu’s AP Environmental Science course, learned about blood diamonds, cocoa farming, food supply chains and the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio in the weeks after the AP exam. 

Aniah, a senior, compared her experience of walking into the building to showing up for family Thanksgiving: even if you didn’t know everyone beforehand, you fit in, feel comfortable and look after each other. Coming to the Lab after being treated like a nerdy outcast at her last school felt like a fresh start, a place where, “I can maybe be who I am.” 

“I feel very confident that like everyone that we’re in class with now will not just not just walk across the stage but be given their diploma,” she said. “That’s what I like — I’m glad it’s a no one left behind type thing.”

Disclosure: This article is published in partnership with The 74, a national nonprofit education news site. The XQ Institute provides financial support to Brooklyn Lab High School and The 74.