In case you haven’t had a chance to visit our newest partner school, we thought you’d enjoy a tour of Brooklyn Landmark in Ocean Hill, led by the woman who knows it best: Principal Robin Davson. In this interview, learn about challenges she and her team have tackled–such as bringing reading proficiency up from 12% to 48% throughout the school–and see how far they’ve come.
AH: When you started at Brooklyn Landmark, what were the major challenges you faced?
RD: I faced the challenge of coming into a school that had been failing for years, so the school had low expectations academically, culturally, and with parental and community engagement. The building hadn’t had custodial care in years and had been under temporary care, so the building wasn’t in the best condition. There were students who weren’t on grade-level and way below grade-level, so I had to move them onto grade-level as fast as possible. But I think the greatest challenge was the culture and climate of the school. Since the school had been failing for years and had low expectations, I had to come in and change the entire mindset of the students, the community and any other constituency that worked in our building.
For example, because the building had been under temporary care for so long, when I would email the construction authority about painting or minor repairs, getting a response was pretty difficult because that was work that just hadn’t been done. Similarly, getting parents on board with uniform policy took time because, again, there was no expectation as to how students should dress for success, everyday. So even with uniform policy, we had to change the mindset of the community and let them know that this was now a new school with new structures, new administration, and a totally new vision.
AH: How has the school changed since you have been principal? What do you think you have improved?
RD: The school has changed dramatically. Academic growth is consistently increasing. When I came in, I had 12% percent of students who were proficient in reading and right now I have 48% who are proficient in reading. In writing, I had students who weren’t able to put words on paper—they were writing strings of letters that made no sense, or they were just drawing pictures to show what they meant. Now, students are writing sentences and their writing is expressive. We are working to improve their writing in all genres, especially persuasive writing and narrative writing. In math, students went from superficial thinking to concrete problem-solving, but that’s also a work in progress because it seems this is the first exposure students have had to this type of thinking. We are working with them day by day to develop their critical thinking skills, and to think deeper about their work. We still have a long way to go, but we are definitely progressing toward our academic goals.
The culture of the school has changed dramatically, too. Our students walk in, they’re happy, I see the joy factor, and they are clearly excited to come to class. Last year’s attendance compared to this year’s attendance shows a significant increase.
We believe character education is just as important as academics. We choose core values every month; this month’s core value is making good choices, and that ties into everything that students are doing, in and out of school, and specific programs like our book of the month, our community circle meetings. We have definitely seen these non-academic character skills improve.
Our parents are now on board in a way they haven’t been before. At our recent parent conferences, out of 146 families, we had 120 families attend, and on their learning environment surveys, they had nothing but positive things to say. Those results will also give us insight into how parents think about the school. And all the monthly school-wide events we have here highlight for parents just how much we care about the students and their growth, and how much we care about creating change in the culture.
AH: What about your school makes you proudest?
RD: I’m proud to say I have a really great staff that works really hard. I’m proud of the partnerships I’ve made, especially with Change for Kids, because they have made such an impact in my community. I don’t know if I could have done it without CFK.
AH: How has Change for Kids helped your school community?
RD: CFK has had an impact on us in many, many ways. First, all of the events I have done at the school involve, in some shape or form, CFK. From my Thanksgiving program at the beginning of the year to now having Pearson here in March. CFK has been integral with those school-wide events, helping to create that culture of high expectations at the school, and that ties into all of our goals. For example, our reading goal is to help students grow an average of four reading levels. So if we’re having family literacy nights, CFK is here with volunteers to help out with that event. The Pearson project ties in directly with this goal, too. We had another school donate books to us—that came through CFK. We’re getting audio books from another school, recorded by their students, along with the physical books, so our students can listen and then follow along, which is great for scholars who need extra help. Even at parent events, when I get a donation to raffle off, it increases engagement.
Something else that has made a significant impact is the music residency, which is now exposing my students to the culture of music. Where other schools are fighting to keep music, we actually have a music residency here. It is going great and the students love it.
Also, when my teachers and I attend the CFK fundraisers and we see the work that is being done, it motivates us to want to do more for the kids. It boosts morale, and inspires.
The gifts donated at holiday time that went to my scholars. Some of my students are in temporary housing and would not have been able to open a gift on Christmas. In comes CFK and donates a wish list item to every one of my scholars and each of them walks home with a gift! I’m getting teary-eyed right now—I would not have been able to do that without the partnership with CFK. The passion that I have and the energy and tenacity and everything that I want for my kids, this partnership has allowed me to continue the mission and vision I have for my students. It has made a tremendous impact, from the largest to the smallest projects.
AH: What is your favorite CFK program?
RD: I can’t say! I think there are so many things going on that tie into my goals and the mission I have for my school, to turn students into 21st Century learners and thinkers, it is hard to choose one thing. But I believe having a thought partner here in Zareta Ricks (School Manager at Brooklyn Landmark) a few days a week, being able to bounce ideas off of her and vice-versa, and to have her help me stay on point with projects and plans, has been one of the best parts of this partnership. With other organizations, they just come in and they do the work and leave. With CFK, having someone here is enormously beneficial for our projects and goals. If I could have her here full time—let’s make that happen!
AH: If you could have any other program at your school, what would you choose?
RD: I would choose an afterschool sports program, a full-scale enrichment sports program. I have my academic program going, I have my character education program going, I was able to secure a few funds from my network for afterschool academics. But I would love to have a sports program where my students would be exposed to soccer, fencing, basketball, golf, tennis and more after school or even on Saturdays. I want them to experience that kind of team work, team building, and what it means to be a part of a greater good. I want them to be in competitions with each other, maybe compete with other schools. It would something to look forward to and something to work towards. I think that would be the kind of program that would change the face of this school and the face of the community.
I also want to create an atmosphere here that is second-to-none. I think we’re off to a great start. Along those lines, I would really like to have ballroom dancing and a string instrument program where scholars can be exposed to music and dance culture other than what they typically hear and see. String instruments, in particular, would teach them patience and responsibility. It would help strengthen their math and their logical reasoning skills.
AH: Where do you want to see your school in 1 year?
RD: I would really love to see my school at a place where its growth is sustained. I know that’s a big idea for year 1, but I want the school to be running with systems and structures in place so that we—my teachers and staff—can continue to focus on being leaders and facilitators of growth and learning. I would love to continue to see academic growth, too. In Brownsville, we are faced with a lot of elements that contribute to the lack of growth in students. Knowing that, we have to do 110% of the work and we have to find additional resources to help those students. So I would love to have those systems in place that create additional learning experiences and more growth for my students.