On East 16 St. between Caton and Church Avenues, nestled inside one of the neighborhood's many Victorians is , a co-ed, nonsectarian private school for pre-schooler through third grad, as well as a day care center for children ages 2-12.
Though someone walking down the block might not notice the institution, it has been a part of the neighborhood since 1980, when owner Netty Brown opened the doors of the building with one goal in mind: to educate.
"When we started, we started the first morning with four children," Brown said with a laugh. "Now we have 84 children, but we have had up to 140. But it's an advantage for the children because they get more attention. Our kids are two grade [levels] or more above their age group."
Brown prides herself in and is dedicated to preserving to that statistic, a statistic she says can be achieved by any student, given the right guidance.
A Lifetime As An Educator
Brown has been an educator for her an entire adult life, and for most of her adolescent one, too.
"I have the background in early childhood from Jamaica," Brown said, referring to her homeland. "When I was in Jamaica, you went to school until you reach the eighth grade. After, if your parents could afford to send you to high school, you left and went to Kingston. If you could not afford it, then you stayed at the school you went to and help teachers during the day. In return, the teachers prepare you to take your national exams for college."
Brown took the latter path, and found herself helping a first grade teacher with her class of 50 children. "She would pick out 10 and give them to me to take outside," she said. "I had my black board and the kids had their slate, and in a few weeks those kids excelled more than the other kids. I found they responded to me so well. That was how I started and where I got my love for preschool -- when I was 15 years old."
She went on to complete and excel her schooling in Jamaica, and then moved to the States to get her Masters at Bank Street College of Education in New York. "The Bank Street philosophy is the best for early childhood," she said, noting that the school has a hands-on mentality that is important when learning how to teach.
Brown then went to Columbia University for her Doctorate, but said she got more than she bargained for. "I completed my dissertation in preschool mathematics, and at the time there was hardly anthing written on preschool," she said. "I developed a math program with teachers at the East New York Daycare [where she worked], and presented it for dissertation. My professor claimed it was too practical and that it needed to be more theoretical."
Brown said she was told she had to re-do her entire dissertation, give up her job at the daycare and live full-time on campus, something she said was not going to happen.
After leaving Columbia, Brown served as the Director of Children's World Daycare for 12 years and then opened her own center. "And that was the way the name 'Practical Learning' came to be," she said with a smile.
Hard Work Brings Results
Children arrive at the Center in the morning from 7-9 a.m., and can be picked up from 3-6 p.m. There are 18 people on staff at this location, and the Center has two additional locations: 527A Eastern Parkway, which opened in 1986 and 1283 Ocean Ave., which opened in 1993.
"We do a lot of hands-on work with the children," Brown said, who noted the center's methods are shaped by the Montessori and Jerome Bruner schools of thought.
"[Our methods of] free choice and play comes from Montessori, and the thought that you can teach anything to any child at any stage of development if you can find a way simple enough to bring it to the child's mode of thinking comes from Jerome Bruner," Brown said.
"When I would get a 95, my father would say, 'What happened to the other five [points]?' That's what I'm instilling in these kids," she said. "Other centers will do what parents want to see during the time they are there, but after [parents leave], they will go back to what they want. I am not going to do that. I have to do what's best for the children-- they got to make it. Don't settle for the 95; go for the other five. Some say that's too much pressure and that's just nonsense."
The Fight to Do More
There is a building on Ocean Ave. between Albemarle Road and Church Avenue that belongs to Brown and is a part of her overall mission to educate. It is her goal to create a school there that will go up to 8th grade as well as a training area for new teachers to learn how to actually teach a lesson.
"I'm hoping to partner with Bank Street College for that training," she said. "We get teachers who don't know what to do in the classroom. That training could go toward their Master's and it would happen in the same building the children are in."
But this mission might not be realized any time soon.
"It is my biggest headache," she said. "We started [development] in 2004. A builder took the $2.91M we saved, and he kept asking for more money. I don't know what he did with the money, but we are in court now and it has been stretched out for so long."
Brown needs at least $10M to finish the school properly, and has saved $2M in addtion to the funds currently being fought over in court. "I don't want to die before I leave something worthwhile behind for children in the neighborhood," she said. "I will not feel like I acheived anything in life without that building."
Many of her students who have gone on to excel in school and the professional world would beg to differ, but Brown cannot be swayed. "I have to finish that building. I pray every day, 'Dear Lord, don't let me die without finishing that building,'" she said. "I don't want to deprive the children."