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Bed-Stuy Principal Wants Students to be 'Jacks of All Trades'

By Camille Bautista | December 7, 2014 6:06pm
 Nakia Haskins, principal of the Brooklyn Brownstone School, wants her elementary school students to have a well-rounded exposure to the community, academics, arts, and music. 
Nakia Haskins, principal of the Brooklyn Brownstone School, wants her elementary school students to have a well-rounded exposure to the community, academics, arts, and music. 
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DNAinfo/Camille Bautista

BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — For principal Nakia Haskins, educating elementary school students goes beyond academics — it’s about giving children opportunities and options.

Haskins, who heads the Brooklyn Brownstone School at 272 MacDonough St., founded the educational institution in 2008 with three core values in mind: curiosity, commitment, and community.

“They have to be exposed to as much as possible to decide what they like,” Haskins, 39, said. “I don’t focus on just one thing. I believe kids in elementary schools should be jacks of all trades.”

The pre-K through fifth grade school serves 240 students.

In addition to improving student achievement, Haskins seeks to boost staff instruction and school performance. She helped to significantly bring up children’s scores up in English and math state exams while immersing students in activities such as robotics and gardening.

In 2014, 41 percent of students performed at or above the proficiency level on Common Core ELA exams, compared to 26 percent the year prior. Similarly, metrics in math jumped from 19 to 37 percent for students at Level 3 or 4, according to the city’s Department of Education.

Still, Haskins says she believes in introducing children to a variety of activities, hosting field trips once a month and taking students with perfect attendance to Broadway plays. 

“A lot of our kids don’t know what exists because we’re worried about preparing them academically,” she said. “They can have academic experiences outside the classroom, if that’s what hooks them to do better in other areas.”

DNAinfo New York recently sat down with Haskins to talk about her mission for the Brooklyn Brownstone School. 

Can you describe the school’s community?
We’re a really close-knit community, from the administration all the way down.

I greet the kids every morning when they come in. I’m at the door at 7:30 a.m. shaking their hands, I’m downstairs at dismissal at the end of the day. The kids feel like they don’t have a problem coming to speak to me, and the staff generally knows every kid as they go through because they’ve been here since they were four.

How are you able to build a relationship with parents and foster a nurturing environment?
It’s about allowing people to contribute. A lot of times when you’re the principal, at the end of the day it all falls on your shoulders. But you can’t be a Little Red Hen about it and do everything, so when parents or teachers make suggestions, I have no problem saying I’ll support them.

I definitely push back and ask what it means for the kids. They don’t always like what I have to say, but they all know they can bring whatever their issues are to me and I’ll do my best to address them.

Even for students, we made a change in art and music class frequency because a kid who was really upset said he only had art two periods a week and wanted it for three, saying that it wasn’t fair. So I said, you’re right, and we made the switch.

How were you able to improve state exam scores in a short time span?
We have a long way to go, we made a lot of growth but we’re still not satisfied as a staff. What we did work on was questioning: what teachers were asking kids and how they were supporting them in asking better questions to each other. We’re allowing kids to solve problems in various ways and not just with steps one, two, and three, having kids be creative and be able to be problem solvers. 

We were rewarded for our quick responses but now we have to honor the process and that means kids have to struggle — it’s about asking a question that you’ve designed to make them struggle, because struggling in academia is thinking.

What are you planning for the school’s future?
Coding is something we’re really trying to look into for kids, whether we implement it as a club or an instructional class. I also want a free after school program for my kids, because it gives us an opportunity to extend our learning day, while kids get another meal, academic support, and additional enrichment.

We also want to team with M.S. 35, who we share a building with, for a math acceleration program for our fifth graders, to be able to push them to take ninth grade Regents when they’re in the seventh grade.

In District 16, we’re doing poorly in math and even though as a school we’re doing better, I want to change that. I think a rising tide lifts all ships and we want to partner with the school downstairs to lift it up.