Unique Brooklyn school to produce new charter

First-grade teacher Pepe Gutierrez, the chapter leader at New American Academy, is glad to see his school’s model of education extended to the new charter. (Photo by Dave Sanders)

By Ellie Spielberrg

First-grade teacher Pepe Gutierrez, the chapter leader at New American Academy, is glad to see his school’s model of education extended to the new charter.

The innovative New American Academy in Crown Heights is on the cutting edge once again, soon to become the first district school to spin off a charter school.

At the proposed school, as with the academy, the traditional classroom is out. The union is in.

From the start, the UFT has been a partner with the Brooklyn school, which features large, open learning areas with four teachers and 60 children, creating a teacher-student ratio of 15 to one. There is a daily 90-minute professional development meeting, a master teacher program and a career ladder program.

“The academy’s basic philosophy is about empowering teachers to deliver the highest quality education, and to see that replicated at another institution is good news for the union and the teaching profession,” said UFT Vice President Leo Casey. “Of all experiments in New York City with master teachers, the academy is the only place where it is being done right.”

“We believe in this model of education, so of course we believe it should be extended,” said Chapter Leader Pepe Gutierrez. “Whether that’s through a district school or a charter school, it’s good for kids.”

Because a charter school cannot open with a unionized staff, Headmaster Shimon Waronker will gather teachers as soon as New American Academy Charter is up and running as planned by the next school year, discuss what they would like to do, and encourage them to join the UFT.

Under charter school law, the decision to form a union and bargain collectively is up to the teachers. Waronker values his school’s partnership with the UFT and sees a union presence as a positive force.

“A lot of people think the only way to innovate is without a union, but I don’t think that’s true,” Waronker said. “When you do innovation with the union, it will outlast any leader and maintain all parties on the same sheet of music.”

Certainly there is professional harmony at the school. Teams consisting of a master teacher, two partner teachers and an apprentice teacher work closely with each other and with the students through six-year learning loops.

“Students can see [teachers] working together and learning from each other. The students are controlled less by uniform rules than by the constant informal nudges from the teachers all around,” wrote New York Times writer David Brooks in a March 22 column praising the school.

Children thrive in the atmosphere of student-centered values, which stress individual creativity, discovery and scientific inquiry. Parents give the school high grades and are involved.

Casey, who is leaving his post of vice president to direct the AFT’s Shanker Institute, will serve on the board of the charter school.

The application for the charter was earmarked for District 19, but Waronker says they will open the school wherever there’s space in Brooklyn, “as long as it’s a high-needs area.”