Brooklyn Kindergarten Society welcomes students back to school

Melisha Jackman, the nonprofit’s executive director, discusses the first week of school and how they weathered the pandemic.

Melisha Jackman with students at BKS’s Edwards I. Cleveland Center in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Photo by Myrtle Charles.

Melisha Jackman with students at BKS’s Edwards I. Cleveland Center in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Photo by Myrtle Charles. Myrtle Charles

Ask Melisha Jackman, the executive director at early-childhood education provider Brooklyn Kindergarten Society, what it was like when her students returned to in-person learning this September, and she’ll tell you, “Kids are happy, parents feel supported.”

Jackman, a lifelong educator, now running a 130-year-old nonprofit in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, spoke to City & State about being prepared to face the challenges of the past year, as it left some children with limited resources to tackle remote learning.

Her organization, which went back to its office early on during the coronavirus outbreak, has invested in providing support for staff members, acknowledging how the impacts of the pandemic have affected everyone.

In an interview, Jackman describes how Brooklyn Kindergarten Society, or BKS, has risen to the moment and how it is prepared for when the COVID-19 pandemic is no longer a health crisis. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Kids have been back to school for more than a week. How has the experience been for students attending the Brooklyn Kindergarten Society’s program?

We’re excited to have the babies back, the children and the families, but also mitigating what we’re going to work with, probably for the next two to five years, of closing some gaps. So, how is school going? Kids are happy, parents feel supported.

BKS is really thinking about three areas: One, the social and emotional well-being of our children, especially our babies who have not been with us and they’re starting school for the first time. How isolated were they? Language and expression skills, and were they able to play with other children their age? Because we know kids learn best through play. Parents are telling us, “I’m here because I need my child to socialize. My 3-year-old is not as verbal as I was expecting him to be. ... I know my child has been by my side and not doing the things that a 2-, or 3-, or 4-year-old would be doing.” So we’re hearing that from our parents and we make sure to ask, “What do you want? What are your concerns?” To have that dialogue.

Our staff came back in August 2020 full time (for) in-person work. That’s the second part of coming through this pandemic – really making sure that we’re having a close ear to how our staff are feeling, responding to their needs and making sure communication stays open because we have these high expectations of children and we want the adults to be curious and facilitators of learning. They have to have the energy and the emotional fortitude to do that. The expectation has risen, but if you've been working through a global pandemic, navigating the fears of testing positive – and we have tested positive, we’ve had over 20 cases last school year – that is heavy.

So keeping folks feeling purposeful, understanding “the why,” the vision, feeling the purpose and knowing that their work matters is key. This pandemic has led us to really hone in so much more. We were always very attentive but staff and teacher voices mean so much to get this work done with children.

We’ve really supported staff with robust professional development, but also working on themselves, who they are as practitioners. Being more culturally responsive to the needs of their children but also doing that work on themselves. That’s all tied to our three strategic priorities: noticing those challenges and looking at how we work with families; how we focus on high-quality offerings for our students; and lastly, making sure our staff are always infused with inquiry, learning and creativity, so that they can transfer that to students. We just finished a week of professional development to make sure we’re ready to be there for our families and students.

Typically, what’s the size of your population?

We have seven centers across seven New York City Housing Authority facilities. We have 411 students on average that we serve. Early childhood requires us to have a small – and it’s the best thing for children – class settings so that everyone’s needs are met.

As a nonprofit, how prepared were you to deal with the pandemic?

Well, I came to BKS, Sept. 22, 2020. I came from a nonprofit (East Harlem Tutorial Program). And when I was at my former nonprofit, I got some great preparation for pivoting to remote learning immediately, within weeks I was sending materials out and I was already working with a team of phenomenal educators. So coming to BKS was a very smooth transition because I had practice over the summer serving over a thousand children remotely across K-12.

Coming to BKS with that experience, coupled with the quick response of our donors, allowed us to get really ready to move forward. It was more of a mindset and dealing with our emotional capacity to really impact the children but we had a lot of support from donors and our board tremendously stepped up. We also acted quickly to apply for a (Paycheck Protection Program) loan, so it was all about staying abreast, organizing, communicating effectively and getting the resources as quickly as possible.

For a nonprofit with a smaller or nonactive board, or nonprofit without the fiscal team and capacity, I can see how it would be very difficult to access all those resources and keep operations going as business as normal. For the most part, it wasn’t business as normal but we were able to maintain and really focus on the needs of our families.

Please talk about the Brooklyn Kindergarten Society and what it does.

Brooklyn Kindergarten Society is a 130-year-old organization. We started off serving immigrant children from Eastern Europe and as New York and Brooklyn has changed throughout the generations with the influx of Caribbean immigrants in the ’70s and ’80s, our population shifted dramatically and continues to shift as we serve children and families from Northern Africa, the Caribbean and other other areas that have centralized in Brooklyn.

We started off with kindergarten and we’ve evolved into serving 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds more in the preschool range. We provide them with an extended day, a 10-hour day, for most of our students and families to ensure that our families have the opportunity to work. We get funding from Head Start and the Department of Education. And then we make sure our students have a robust and comprehensive learning, academic-play experience. And we infuse it with support for our families on the social services end and ensure that all of our kids have an equal first step in their academic careers. That is the high level of what and who BKS is.

When you say, “an equal first step,” how did that equity shift when the coronavirus pandemic hit?

In March 2020, when all of this was happening, we surveyed our families and got some feedback that we had quite a few families, about 20%, who were food insecure. So thinking about access to quality nutrition, we saw there were shifts, given the pandemic, and we had to respond. We served over 5,000 meals during the course of the pandemic to ensure that children and families, when they were joining our spaces remotely, of course, that they had the proper nutrition to allow them to have those basic needs met.

There was a definite shift in an area that we needed to respond to quickly, robustly and also making sure that we were tapping into neighborhood businesses as we are a community-based organization. We’re also keeping a mind of who our food provider was going to be so that we support local businesses while supporting our family. So food was the biggest space. The second place where we noticed equity challenges was in access to technology for our students. So, we really saw a need to ramp up resources for families and because the students are 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds, it requires a parent to be next to a child to engage in the learning experience. And because many of our families, given that we receive Head Start funding, are at or below the poverty line, many of our families are essential workers. So when you think about who’s staying home, they didn’t have the privilege to work from home. Many of our families are our retail workers. They are our housekeepers. They are our folks on the ground, keeping the city going but their children had remote learning too.

So the equity challenges of not having that stable person at home, when we were still fully shut down in quarantine, definitely impacted the educational experiences of students. If you didn’t have mom or dad or that primary caregiver home with a child, you had secondary folks or even teenagers home with the children, trying to figure things out. That was huge.

Also teaching teachers how to teach remotely – our staff had to adapt quickly and in the early childhood field of education, it has traditionally been very care-based, child-centered, play-based, and teachers had to pivot and learn how to respond and become these new instructional remote experts quickly and create opportunities and activities that would lead to something very impactful. Everyone was flying the plane and building it at the same time, but in the field of early childhood, the expectations were already far different from those of our counterparts in a K-12 setting. That has actually pushed us to do more, to be more and to revamp educational outcomes for our kids and the expectations for teachers, and teaching, and learning.

Experts predict a steady decline in COVID-19 cases through March. What do you see next for Brooklyn Kindergarten Society once the pandemic is over?

We take our lessons learned moving forward. Because our office has always been in the office, we’ve been here the entire time in our centers. We’ve been fully open. We have adopted a new norm for ourselves with increased health and safety protocols and practices, increased extra attention to trauma and force learning. But moving forward, BKS also has developed a theory of change: a new reimagined approach to teaching learning for high-quality outcomes for students, a new reimagined approach for how we have authentic relationships with our families and community. And lastly, a reimagined approach for how we have professional development for every single stakeholder. I’m not just talking about teachers and leaders. I’m talking about the cooks, the custodians, the family service workers, the bookkeepers, that whole ecosystem allowed us to flourish. So, we have to keep that ecosystem intact. Just because things will go “back to normal” for us doesn’t mean it’s back to business as usual for us. It’s about pivoting to this space where we understand it takes a village to do this work thoughtfully and intentionally for students. And I feel change is going to lead us for the next five years at BKS as we are in a reimagined, new world after this pandemic.

Tell me about your background. I understand you are the second person of color to take the helm at your organization.

I definitely am the second executive director of color and female. I come from a long experience in education. I started off as a math and science teacher. I was a chemistry major in college. I wanted to be a scientist and I started my career teaching middle school science and I had an itch for leadership. I went up that ladder at the Department of Education. I was there for 13 years, as a teacher, assistant principal, a middle school principal, a high school principal, and then I made the transition into chartering a nonprofit and I started working and thinking thoughtfully about K through college education. I ran K through college programs for over 2,000 children in East Harlem. Thinking thoughtfully about how to get back home, I’m a native Brooklynite, I live in East New York, how do I come back and serve my community that I was born in and continue to live in and serve the community of children that our centers provide service for? I’ve had a long career in (public school) education and am a product of it. My children are also a product of the public school system. So, it’s very personal for me.

Last thing, please tell me about your new sensory gym.

BKS is on the verge of creating the first sensory gym in NYCHA public housing, which will be free to all of our families and we hope to expand it to the community to work on occupational therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy and do prescreening for autism. Given the pandemic, you know they’re going to be delays, and we want to have a preventative measure that’s accessible and free.