Inside Schools Review
Students at the Brooklyn Environmental Exploration School (BEES) plant vegetables in a community garden near the school, dissect a cactus to learn about desert plants at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and go hiking at a wilderness camp upstate.
In class, students engage in debates on weighty topics: Should the government fund embryonic stem cell research? Should schools or families should take responsibility for childhood obesity? Should children with learning disabilities get less homework and extra time on tests?
At this tiny middle school, students move around the classroom, chatting with their classmates as they prepare an argument to present to the rest of the class. They work in groups on a math problem. They test whether a golf ball, a ping pong ball or a marble has more force when it rolls down a ramp.
“I want what every parent wants, for kids to be learning, happy and safe,” says Principal Craig Garber, who founded the school in 2013 after nearly a decade teaching at Beginning with Children Charter Middle School in Williamsburg. “The teachers are friendly and the kids are talking.”
Test scores are below the citywide average, but are inching up. In 2017, BEES was listed as one of 10 city schools with the largest gains in reading test scores.
BEES has embraced the Middle School Quality Initiative (MSQI), the city’s program to boost reading skills with a longer school day, exercises to build vocabulary, and classroom debates designed to teach children to develop an argument and to speak clearly. On our visit, both teachers and students seemed happy and engaged in the debates.
Trips are a big part of the curriculum. Every year, children go on an overnight trip to Camp Ramapo in Rhinebeck, NY, where they learn about the environment and use ropes to climb trees. They see magic shows and African dance at the New Victory Theater in Manhattan and visit the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City and the New York Hall of Science in Queens. They travel to Philadelphia and Washington, DC, to learn about U.S. history and government.
At lunch and recess, children may choose whether they want to go outside, play board games indoors, read in the library, exercise in the gym, or play foosball or knock hockey in a special “game room.” Garber says fun, supervised activities like these keep children safe—and less like to take part in bullying that often accompanies unstructured time.
For children who want to arrive early or stay late, the school is open from 6:45 am to 5:45 pm each day. Children may work in the library or play sports such as flag football, volleyball and basketball when classes are not in session “For a very small school, we have pretty robust sports teams,” Garber says. There is a full-time guidance counselor and a full-time social worker.
A downside to the small size: No foreign language is offered.
SPECIAL EDUCATION: The school offers team-teaching classes. Although it doesn’t have a designated self-contained class, some of the team-taught classes have just a dozen students with two teachers—the same size as a typical self-contained class. Garber says BEES offers flexible programming in an effort to accommodate students whose IEP calls for a self-contained class.
ADMISSIONS: District 23 choice. In recent years, the school has had room for all applicants. “I’ll take anyone who wants to be here,” says Garber. (Clara Hemphill, November 2017)