BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — Fabayo McIntosh-Gordon returned to central Brooklyn’s School District 16 with a mission: to inspire children in her neighborhood and build young leaders from Bedford-Stuyvesant.
The founding principal launched Brighter Choice Community School at 280 Hart St. near Marcus Garvey Boulevard in 2008, and has since helped it grow it with in-demand programming and extracurricular classes like cooking and African dance.
However, the journey to becoming the district’s first school with a dual Spanish and English language program in recent years and topping the neighborhood’s English Language Arts state exam scores didn’t come easy, McIntosh-Gordon said.
“We’re like 'The Little Engine That Could’ because when we started, I loved everybody, I hugged everybody, I knew everybody’s names, but we were just not getting it,” the principal said of low test scores and high turnover rates.
“But I’m really proud of the growth that we made. I’ve grown from watching teachers add on to the work. It’s great to have an acknowledgement of a rocky start to where we are now, to where we’re still standing. Because when we started, it didn’t seem like we’d still be standing right now.”
Brighter Choice, serving children in pre-K through fifth grade, replaced a failing school in 2008.
At the start of the 2016 academic year, it nearly doubled its student population through a merger with another elementary school, Young Scholars’ Academy for Discovery and Exploration.
McIntosh-Gordon stands by the school’s motto: “Every Child, Every Day, College Bound,” with a focus on preparing kids for higher education at an early age.
The principal recently sat down with DNAinfo New York to discuss the changes at Brighter Choice Community School and plans for its future. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What was your vision in founding Brighter Choice?
When I was a teacher I started seeing that it seemed like there was a shift in schools. When I went to school, I felt loved. I felt smart. My mom was a working mom so she felt really dependent on my school to help form me. And I started to see when I became a teacher that school was not being seen that way anymore. It didn’t seem like people were in it to uplift, or that people really believed in the work that they were doing.
I said when I had an opportunity, I want to open a school specifically in central Brooklyn that motivates, that provides opportunities like arts enrichment and language enrichment and science enrichment, so that children go out in the world and they’re able to go to that gifted and talented junior high school or go to that junior high school that focuses on specific arts programs.
Brighter Choice Community School was founded with love and inspiration to inspire young people to go out and be their best selves.
The school focuses on college-readiness at an early age. How do you prepare students?
I wanted a school where even though this was elementary school, college is the end goal of all of this. Someone once told me, you receive your foundation between birth and sixth grade. You build on that. So I said, what can I do in this space and this time that I’m going to have these children, that they can then build on and go out in the world and do something spectacular?
We start early with conversations: what is college? For a group of my population, they might not have had folks in their family who have gone to college. Forget it as something being an option for them, but they might not even know.
Once they get in third grade, they do a lot of classes with my guidance counselor where they think about, what do they want to be when they grow up? We do college trips, we’re going to visit high schools, even things like meeting with parents to let them know the cost of college.
How are you able to make strides in improving test results, like in 2015 when your school topped the District’s ELA exam scores?
It’s hard work, its knowing your children, its providing support services to continue to help them enhance. So we do a Saturday test prep academy, we were doing after-school academy and then you have to find other ways to balance that so they’re just not robots in school taking a test. Because that’s what I don’t want to do.
And then it's being creative to find resources to support all of this. The year when we had the highest reading results, I think two years prior to that I invested in new libraries in every classroom. We partnered with the Brooklyn Public Library and we celebrated reading. It wasn’t just reading to take a test, but really just celebrating why it's important to read. What I love about this school is people here really care. They give up their lunch break to sit and help that child understand.
What are your goals for the school in the coming months and years?
We want to be District 16’s first dual language and STEAM school. We want to have a robotics lab, a science lab, and we’re working on this coding program. The world is changing around us. If we really want children to be prepared and have that foundation that they can build on later on, we have to adapt to what’s going on in the world right now.
I also want to grow the dual language program to where its not just Spanish that we speak. I would love to do a Spanish and French program. And for those students who are not in dual language, having a special enrichment class. I want to do theater class in another language for all of my students. Language exposure to everyone is a long-term goal of the school, and just expanding our science, technology and art programs.
What do you think attracts families to the school?
First of all, we start with love. So the focus here is love, family and support. So while we focus on academics, I believe you have to focus on cultural things first to get to those academics.
I think it’s the programming and the culture. I’m at the door every morning shaking their child’s hand. It’s our partnerships, students in Pre-K thru 5 take African dance, we offer chess for every student in grades kindergarten through fifth grade. We partner with an organization called Bubble so we’re all about healthy living here and we’re growing our own organic gardens right now in their classroom with the goal of us selling and doing a farmer’s market at one point.
I think parents didn’t realize that there’s a district school in the neighborhood that is doing what the private schools or charter schools are doing, and then some. I do for parents what I would want someone to do for my child.