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Brooklyn Principal Proud to Offer Theater and Gardening, Not Just Test Prep

By Nikhita Venugopal | September 30, 2013 7:31am
 Anna Allanbrook, principal of the Brooklyn New School P.S. 146 in Carroll Gardens.
Anna Allanbrook, principal of the Brooklyn New School P.S. 146 in Carroll Gardens.
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DNAinfo/Nikhita Venugopal

CARROLL GARDENS — Anna Allanbrook has been leading the Brooklyn New School in Carroll Gardens since 1997, and she's held firm to her beliefs about what would make the school great.

Even in the face of increasingly high-stakes standardized testing, Allanbrook has maintained her focus on "inquiry-based learning," in which children take trips and do projects, rather than just drilling on multiple-choice questions.

Standardized tests should be just one way of measuring a child’s progress, but recently, “it became the only measure," said Allanbrook. "We are giving a lot of power to the test makers."

Allanbrook, now 58 and living in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, started her career in education at 23 as a teacher, in both public and private schools, after graduating with a degree in fine arts from the Pratt Institute.

The Brooklyn New School, also known as P.S. 146, was founded by a group of parents and teachers in 1987 and has since grown to more than 600 students. Allanbrook taught at the school before becoming co-director in 1997 and then moving up to principal in 2000.

Allanbrook said she is proud that the pre-K-to-fifth-grade choice school at 610 Henry St. has never offered a gifted and talented program, striving to maintain a "heterogeneous classroom" rather than tracking kids by ability.

“All children bring some strengths and weaknesses to the learning process,” she said.

The school is successful academically — it has scored an “A” grade on the Department of Education’s progress report overview since 2010 — and Allanbrook credits that success to teachers keeping a close eye on the students and guiding them as they learn.

“A lot of times, there’s an assumption that you can just tell children things and they’ll learn,” Allanbrook said. “And actually, it doesn’t work that way.”

Q: Brooklyn New School has never offered a gifted and talented program. Why?

A: The school was founded with certain principles. And one of those principles was that children learn best in a heterogeneous grouping with other children who are the same and different in every way — both academically and emotionally.

They learn from each other. We didn’t want to separate children by their numbers.

Q: What are the other principles that you follow at P.S. 146?

A: Children learn best in what’s called “inquiry-based or project-based learning.” We approach our reading and our writing through these big, thematic units that children are studying.

There’s a strong focus on science at this school. A lot of times, in many schools, you’ll see on the daily schedule, there’ll be reading and writing and math and then, if you’re lucky, at the end of the day, there might be a period for social studies and science.

We incorporate the reading and writing into social studies and science. That becomes the main focus of the work the children are doing in school.

Q: What exactly is “inquiry-based learning?"

A: Children go on lots of trips, they’re outside gardening, they’re making things, they’re building things and they’re doing theater. It’s not just reading and writing and arithmetic.

Q: When you say you’re trying to incorporate reading and writing into social studies and science, do you consider that in line with the new Common Core Standards?

A: We think that. What makes the Common Core discussion tricky is how it’s being interpreted. The Common Core says what children should be able to do and when. But it doesn’t speak to how you get there.

What has been emphasized is the need for children to engage with nonfiction. And that’s something we’ve always been doing.