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Principal at New Charter School Aims to Create 'Empowered Learners'

By Leslie Albrecht | September 23, 2013 7:13am
 Linda Rosenbury is the first principal at the newly opened Brooklyn Urban Garden School.
Principal of the Week: Brooklyn Urban Garden School
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WINDSOR TERRACE — As an art history major who studied photography and sculpture in college, Linda Rosenbury assumed she would go into the art world when she moved to New York after her graduation.

But she decided to honor her family's tradition of public service — her mom is on the board of the Iowa American Civil Liberties Union and her parents host political refugees in their Iowa home — and she took a two-year teaching job.

She was amazed at how stimulating teaching was, and dove headfirst into education.

"I thought it was just going to be a couple of years of service, but I found it to be so challenging psychologically, physically, emotionally and intellectually," Rosenbury said. "I loved it, so I just stayed in it."

Now 33, the Park Slope resident has since taught at the Children's School (P.S. 372) in Gowanus and just completed a five-year stint as principal of M.S. 22 in the Bronx.

This year she became the first principal of a brand-new charter school, the Brooklyn Urban Garden School, which opened on Aug. 26. The middle school, housed inside Bishop Ford Central Catholic School on 19th Street and Prospect Park West, was founded by local parents who wanted more middle school options in District 15.

BUGS has an environmental sustainability theme with a math and science focus. Kids are more apt to be outside interacting with the natural world than locked in a classroom doing test prep drills. This school year students will design, plan and build their own school garden, and they've already been on two field trips.

Rosenbury says she wants students to leave BUGS "empowered as learners," and to be able to choose and get into the best high school for their needs.

"That will show me that it's successful — that they're not just choosing the high school that their friends want to go to, but instead they're thinking really thoughtfully and they've learned how to advocate for themselves and how to make choices about their own learning," Rosenbury said.

Q: What drew you to the job at BUGS?

A: I love middle school and I often think that middle schools fight against the natural inclinations of adolescent development. This is a time in children’s lives when they think they're becoming adults. They resist authority, they look for the affirmation of their peers, they want to take risks, they want their voice to be heard, they want to be doing real work, they want to be active.

When I read the BUGS charter application, I could tell it was written by parents who knew children. It was so smart about giving students the opportunity to be outside, to work with one another. They were thinking about children not doing abstract reports, but instead collaborating to solve real-world problems. It was a breath of fresh air. Finally there's a middle school that's really considering that particular period in a child’s life instead of fighting against it.

Q: How do you go about starting a new school?

A: I interviewed more than 100 people from all over the world via Skype. Then we had a hiring task force interview people in person individually. Then we had a final round where all of our finalists got together for three hours and developed curriculum and discussed field study and projects. We observed their interpersonal skills and their ability to work with uncertainty, because as a new school they really need that flexibility.

Q: What else did you do to get ready?

A: Student recruitment was really robust. We recognized that we’re in a very diverse district in terms of socio-economic status, languages spoken at home, racial and ethnic background and a lot of schools are segregated by those demographics.

We wanted to make sure that BUGS was a school where students from all walks of life were learning together in the classroom. We felt like the best way to prepare our students for the future was to have them have a diverse set of peers.

We did a lot of recruitment at the Red Hook pools, at Sunset Park churches. I visited tutoring sites geared toward Chinese-Americans. We made a lot of phone calls and held a lot of information sessions.

Q: Did that recruitment effort work?

A: Yes. It’s amazing. This is one of the most integrated schools I’ve ever seen. We have a staff that’s really dedicated to embracing that diversity and making sure that students are making friends from all walks of life

Q: Talk about academics at BUGS.

A: Our school day lasts longer than DOE schools [8 a.m. to 4 p.m.] and our school year has 10 more instructional days. What we do with all the extra time is we have time for more field study and service-learning projects.

But we still have a very rigorous curriculum in each core content area that touches on the themes of sustainability, but makes sure that we’re really preparing kids for high school.

The Common Core is obviously the big thing across the whole country and we're making sure that we have very rigorous academics. We have assessments that happen regularly throughout the year for us to see who’s on track.

We don’t do test prep as a separate area. We believe that the best test preparation is to have really engaging, meaningful work that challenges students to think critically about issues they care about.