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NYC Lab School's Brooke Jackson Mixes Compassion with Tradition

By Mathew Katz | April 30, 2012 6:18am
Brooke Jackson is the principal of the NYC Lab School.
Brooke Jackson is the principal of the NYC Lab School.
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DNAinfo/Mathew Katz

CHELSEA — Since Brooke Jackson, 39, took the helm at NYC Lab School at 333 W. 17th St. in Chelsea in 2007, it has become one of the top-ranked, and most in-demand, public schools in New York City.

What was your best subject when you were at school?

I was definitely a humanities person. ELA [English Language Arts] in particular is my area of greatest passion, and the arts.

What’s the school project you are the most proud of? Do you have a photo or record of it?

One thing I always remember when I was a ninth grader an author touched me — Louise Erdrich, a Native American feminist poet [and] author of fiction and nonfiction. This teacher that was very influential gave me [her book] “Love Medicine.” It was my first project, my first novel where I was going deep in on an author, that I had something to say about the author’s intentions and motivations.

Studio art is another passion of mine. One of my art teachers would always give us problems to solve visually.

Did you ever get in trouble? If so, what for?

Yes. The worst time I got in trouble was in the madrigal choir. I loved my choir and my choir director, but we went to a competition to Montreal, with all these high school kids from all over. We definitely got caught with a lot of boys in our room in a partying situation. It was a devastating moment, I got called into the office and got suspended.

Were you good at sport?

I always say to the kids that I was a three-sport varsity bench-warmer. I was on all the teams, but soccer was one sport that I actually played. I loved being part of a team, the physicality. Besides that, I’m an academic and an intellectual, the things I loved the most were choir and such.

Did you have a nickname?

A lot of kids called me Brooker [when I was at school].

Is there a teacher or principal you had that stands out? Why?

Yeah, my ninth-grade English teacher ended up rolling up with us, again in 11th grade and again in 12th. I just loved her, she lived in the community I grew up in and she was really active in it. Being a community leader, would see her in all the games and concerts, she was a part of life.

I loved that she was a literary person and very passionate in an out-loud way. She was ecstatic about poetry and treated our writing as viable text.

When did you decide to become a teacher and then a principal?

I started teaching here at the Lab School in 1997 and it was the most amazing job ever. The founding co-principals started to anticipate their retirement and encouraged me to get my certification in school leadership. I really felt such a commitment and responsibility to school and it’s future, so it was such an honor to be asked to become principal in 2007.

How has the school changed since you’ve become principal?

The first and most substantial change, the school was functioning as a 6-12 model, and we demarcated the two pieces of the 7-year arc into a middle school and a high school. Meg Adams became middle school principal and I took the high school piece.

NYC Lab School students Rasheed Dixon, 16, and Vino Handiman, 18, cut out dead plants on the High Line.
NYC Lab School students Rasheed Dixon, 16, and Vino Handiman, 18, cut out dead plants on the High Line.
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DNAinfo/Mathew Katz

Structurally, it was a very significant change. Even though it was painful, as any transition can be, it allowed both Megan and I to focus with our teachers on the most important developmental needs of all the students.

In terms of curriculum and instruction, we’re really articulating and aligning our curriculum. Here at the Lab School there are the skills, concepts, understandings that we value, it’s a shift from crafting a curriculum that transcends a transient teaching population while still allowing a little more alignment around the articulation of our curriculum.

We’ve made a deep dive into the realm of social-emotional learning, not only in terms of ethos, but a lot of the pedagogical practices and research based on it. We’ve really taken on that skillset alongside traditional academic school. When it comes to academic rigor versus community and compassion, I said I refuse to choose, and that’s been a lot of the focus for these five years.

What is the most important thing that you want students graduating the school to have learned?

That we’re better and stronger and smarter together rather than in isolation and in competition.

What makes this school different from other schools?

The notion that just because these are teenagers, they don’t outgrow the need to be loved and cared for and known. We’re not just teaching the content, we’re detectives of the human soul.

What has been the most difficult decision you've had to make as a principal?

In the face of budget crises, having to make staffing cuts and decisions is always really painful. It’s not just about always wanting to brace for the impact, it’s somebody’s livelihood and commitment, to date, to the school. The other is having to make disciplinary decisions.

If you could be Schools Chancellor for a day, what would you do/change?

I worry a lot about the testing mania, there are infinite ways of knowing that which students know that can’t be empirically tested. Even the worst school that fares well on the progress report and other psychometrics, it feels reductionist and shifts the emphasis from learning to grades.

Who is the student that you believe you’ve had the most impact on?

Again, I still identify very much as a teacher and I think about the students I had access to in my English classroom. When I think about how I shape the experience for students in the seat of the principal’s ship, I think more about creating conditions. The school in its current iteration supports a more diverse sector of the students, so it becomes a model site, and there’s a sense of belonging for everyone.

Two students who graduated last year really found a home in our theater company. One of them came out publicly as a gay man and the other is such a brilliant mind but never really anchored in a way that she could excel until then. Both of those students not only found a home of the theater company, but self-awareness. It was kind of a glorious validation.