Podcast: Brooklyn School Shares Instructional Program Scheduling Map Resource to Guide Schools With Re-Opening

Reading Time: 18 minutes


  • Eric and Bennison from the Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School recognized that all schools around the United States are facing tough decisions about how to reopen and manage compliance with public health guidelines for social distancing.
  • Brooklyn LAB partnered with the Urban Projects Collaborative consultancy and five design firms — Gensler, PBDW Architects, PSF Projects, Situ, and WXY Architecture + Urban Design — to create the Instructional Program Scheduling Map.
  • This tool reflects insights and addresses early concerns from public health experts, students, teachers, parents, guardians, and schools.
  • It also explores innovative human capital solutions, such as the use of community educators and success coaches to support social-emotional learning for students.
  • This tool provides solutions for staff scheduling, class configurations, and planning considerations for general education and specialized settings, including those for special education.
  • You can review the relevance of questions and solutions developed in relation to Brooklyn LAB for your own context and share the tool with leaders in your school community.

Audio Transcript

Gabrielle Schlichtmann 0:02  

Hello, and welcome to the Educating All Learners Alliance case study broadcast. My name is Gabbie Schlichtmann, and I’m executive director of EdTogether and I’ve been leading the case study work for the Alliance. The Alliance is an ever-growing group of over 50 national education organizations that are working to ensure the continuity of special education services during the time of COVID-19 and beyond, through a hub of curated best practice resources and case studies. And I’m super excited today to have Eric Tucker, co-founder and executive director at Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School, and Bennison Ntsakey, the director of academics also from Brooklyn Lab, to talk with us today. Welcome to both.

Bennison Ntsakey 0:52  

Hello, good afternoon. It’s really good to be here. I’m really excited to be engaged in this conversation. Thank you for having us.

Eric Tucker 1:00  

Great to see you. Thanks for having us.

Gabrielle Schlichtmann 1:03  

Awesome. So, we’re going to be talking mostly today about an awesome resource that you all have developed, called the instructional program scheduling map. I know you’ve been doing a lot of the work to develop resources both for the Brooklyn Lab Charter School, but that you can also share to the public so that others might be inspired by or engaged with that around their own programs and planning. So can you tell us a little bit about what the scheduling map is and what inspired the team at Brooklyn Lab to create it?

Bennison Ntsakey 1:41  

OK, I will start. So when we sort of went into closure with the pandemic and COVID-19, we know that one of the first things that happened was this set of unfinished learning that happened with scholars. And so that put every school in a place of facing really complex challenges around how do we even begin to think about reopening for the 2020–2021 school year, right? And so not only was the pandemic, you know, significant, but then we also thought about the sort of disruption that was so abrupt because of what ended up happening. And so the instructional scheduling map was our way of beginning to think through how do we actually start to plan for when we return to school in the fall, right? Given the fact that students are going to need so much more academic and social-emotional support, you know. 

Bennison Ntsakey 2:36  

And so we knew from the onset that to do this well, right, our back-to-school instructional program scheduling map had to be a collaboration. And so we engaged in a design charrette, which is just a really intense period of like planning activity, and proposing potential solutions to reopen it. And so the result of that, the scheduling map, is version one, right? And this version one really takes the guidance of social distancing and reopening, but specifically seeks to provide a framework of clear ways to begin to reopen schools. I’m going to pass it off to Eric, who is going to talk specifically about why we chose this approach and what this map seeks to do.

Eric Tucker 3:27  

So when school doors closed, a lot else changed about our daily lives, right? How we go to the grocery store or connect to family or loved ones who aren’t a part of our pod changed in really fundamental ways. Around the world we’ve seen examples of countries that returned to school in a way that is — that embraces a public health approach, that uses a combination of social distancing, mask wearing, new routines, and rituals around symptom checks. So temperature checks, health symptom checks, and sanitizing hands, that in combination add up to a public health approach to return to school.

Eric Tucker 4:24  

And the basic building blocks of school were thrown into question by a lot of those approaches. So social distancing might dictate that only 10 or 12 students can fit in a classroom in a way that’s socially distanced. Well, a lot of the basic premises around how we staff for and organize ourselves during the school day are premised on particular numbers of students being in a class or in a single classroom with a particular number of adults for a particular period of time. And what we recognized quickly is that social distancing was going to have a profound impact on special education. Because, at least in New York City, so many IEPs have mandates that explicitly name the number of students and adults with particular qualifications that are gathered together in a particular room for a particular period of time. And so we were confronted by — like concerned about — what those dramatic changes might mean.

Eric Tucker 5:46  

But we also recognize that there was an opportunity to kind of do some green field work about how special education regulations and guidelines met social distancing, and some of the constraints of a public health approach. And to think through what those would mean, in a fall, and for a school year, when in-person instruction is going to have kind of staffing challenges. There’ll be a significant number of adults who are apprehensive about returning to work because of legitimate p—, you know, kind of medical fragility or immune system reasons. And we’re going to need to make sure that we are preparing to meet the needs of our most vulnerable learners.

Gabrielle Schlichtmann 6:41  

Yeah, so tell me a little bit more about that. How are you — because I know it’s very baked into this process, which Bb [Bennison] you mentioned — doing this sort of design charrette, the sort of agile approach. It’s really equity by design, which is this new initiative that you have in terms of this web hub, where the scheduling map is posted so that others can look into it. So tell me more about the process that you went through, this design trip process, and how in doing so you’re able to keep equity at the center of that process. 

Bennison Ntsakey 7:19  

Yeah, I think one of the biggest moments for us is, from a design perspective, really stepping back and understanding the fact that, you know, the traditional planning process, right, works to design for the 80% of the quote-unquote average students who are served, right? And as a school community, we know that our learners are not average, right? And so because they are not average, we have to sort of plan for the margins, right, to make sure that it actually works in a very specific way. And so we came up with a set of questions and began to bring teams together to attempt to answer these questions.

Bennison Ntsakey 7:56  

But we also understood that before we even could jump into that kind of thinking, we have to listen in to our staff members, to our families, to our children to say, what do you — what sort of like responses do you need? Sort of see what the future is going to look like. So we asked that sort of questions through the charette process and we started with the most critical, right? Which is how do we meet the needs of students. And when we said how do we meet the needs, we really mean the margins, right? How do we make sure that when we provide educational options that can be equitably accessed by students, no matter what they, who they are, what their backgrounds are, right? And so from the design perspective, then we began to do partnerships around how do our facilities actually support the instructional groupings of children, right? Can children access the building when they’re in a classroom? Can they move around, right, and still be socially distanced? And we also began to ask if we get those first two right, right, which is how do we meet the needs of our students, where are instructional groups of students scheduled to learn, right? Those were two sets of questions.

Bennison Ntsakey 9:03  

But then we began to think about how do we actually find teams of educators to do this work, right? Ultimately, we’re in a world where our greatest currency is our people — it’s our most natural resource and our strongest piece. So how do we actually staff to ensure that the core instructional work happens? And of course, as with any school community, right, you ultimately want your educators to be supported through this process. So we partnered with organizations to be able to answer how do educators actually learn while learning to do something radically different? And of course, at the heart of everything that we’re doing is wanting to be in a position to be able to revise as we get feedback from people, right? So the design charrette was really a process of saying, what are the core questions that most communities of learning will have to answer, right? And how do we begin to not give answers but provide a framework that ensures that solutions plan for the margins and actually ensure that our most vulnerable, sort of like, are at the center. Because what we know is if we get that right, we actually do a very strong job of opening the doors for additional learners to be able to access instructional spaces. So that was the process.

Bennison Ntsakey 10:21  

And we really sort of said, if we’re going to go through these sets of questions, we’re absolutely open to using our community as a case study for how this could be, right? And so Brooklyn Lab, you know, essentially said, OK, as we’re talking through this, let’s see how it affects or how it could be implemented in our school spaces as a way for schools to be able to first see all of these resources and have a quick early slice around what it could look like. We are fully aware that these are, again, examples not exemplars, right? And the core element of our design is to make sure we start and plan for the margins that are most vulnerable, right? And when you start there, your design just has to answer those things first, right? Keeping equity at the center, making sure that the solutions are tangible, and making sure that it’s also scalable to other spaces. So that’s, that was our process.

Gabrielle Schlichtmann 11:17  

I love how you’re talking about this as a method that you can employ, right? And it’s not just to this scheduling map, but in general, this is how you would approach any major aspect of redesign where you want to make sure that you’re meeting the needs of all your students and that others can be able to learn from. So I’m wondering if you can tell us about some of the key strategies that came out of this process. You know, what are — the scheduling map people can dive into and look at the details of, we’re going to link it for folks — but what are the things that you’d like to share now, some sort of high tops that came out of that process?

Bennison Ntsakey 12:01  

Yeah, I think one of the first things we really prioritized around our design process is understanding that learning is going to look different, right? And so there are real constraints around how learning happens. And so our process began with sort of going into this and saying, we have to operate with the principle of doing no harm, right? Whatever we come up with has to meet the bar of not doing harm to children and communities. And so part of that is, step one, right? And so every design element that came out, we really try to answer: Does this help? Or could this help in a more meaningful way, so we cannot do harm. And so that was sort of like the first light bulb that has shown up in every single element of the work that we’ve done.

Bennison Ntsakey 12:48  

And then a second thing that has been like a really bright spot around our process for me, is to really think about, well, how do we evolve or update our systems as we get feedback from folks? And so really prioritizing the sort of social-emotional supports that need to be embedded in any sort of instructional programming, right? We know, we make plans and plans change. But then there are people that go through these plans and these processes. And so it’s been really humbling to sort of host the focus groups or families and staff members and folks saying, we appreciate this, we want you to think about this and consider that. And so that sort of iteration is what’s been most powerful to us.

Bennison Ntsakey 13:30  

And so as folks jump into looking at the sort of drafts of plans and everything that is in a scheduling guide, what I hope people see is that we really try to ensure that the principles of like really strong equity designs showed up through the process. And so not just not doing no harm, not just ensuring the social-emotional well-being, but like ensuring that the right people are at the table, right? Like you cannot do this without the people who are going to live the experience. So that’s children, family, staff members, community members, getting the right sort of experts on the table. And Brooklyn Lab, we are first to say, we know there are experts that could work with us on this, and so that collaboration was critical.

Bennison Ntsakey 14:14  

And I think the last piece that has been such a bright spot here is to really empower teachers as the experts to be able to meet the needs of children, right? And the way — that’s a very different sort of design element, right? So this is not the here, go deliver it.” We’re saying to teachers, what do you think is going to be the best way to serve this learner that you have a deep committed relationship with. Like you’re the first phone call about what’s going to happen with reopening, and so how do we support you to be able to provide answers but also stand by this because this — you’re the architect of the solutions we’re coming up with, you know. And so, as people look at the instructional scheduling map, I want people to sort of see that that’s what’s embedded in there, right? The core principles that we use to try to answer how do we serve our students. Embedded in that is also like how do we ensure that teachers are involved in the process of serving our students? How do we ensure that we do no harm? You know, like the principles are embedded in each of the core questions that we sought to answer.

Bennison Ntsakey 15:17  

And so we’re very thankful by just the openness of different organizations to work with us. And then we’re also thankful that we went through a process of really privileging what works, right? If you have a solution that works, yeah, bring it we want that, right? I think together we can really make this work. But us, the process being a process, that did not start from zero, right? We started off with, like, there are relationships, there are systems, there are tools that work. Let’s take those and adjust them with the new constraints we have, and then bring it early and often to the people who are going to deliver and execute those plans. So I know that was very long-winded, but it’s just as I think about our process, I’m just very, very like excited and honored that we started with those core principles in attempting to answer what is a very complex process, right? Things are changing every day.

Gabrielle Schlichtmann 16:13  

Yeah, it is so complex, and I think every school is grappling — every family, every educator is grappling with this right now. One of the things that I was so impressed with, with the scheduling map and other work you’re doing, is how you haven’t — I think, in an effort to simplify, we’ve sometimes seen folks lean towards abandoning some of those like best practices or core things that we know work, right? So like, pushing, pushing in support for kids with disabilities, you know? Really valuing that inclusive classroom, making sure that kids get the related services that they need in that space. So, and you can clearly see that in this scheduling map. I wonder, Eric, if you can talk a little bit about how you brought in the architecture firm to think about that, and, and married that to the empathy work that Brooklyn Lab did with families and educators. Just think about, you know, what are those needs in this space, and then really making it live in the facility that you have.

Eric Tucker 17:25  

So, you know, as you stated, we started with a set of questions around how can we meet the needs of students given the changing context of socially distanced classrooms and the public health approach. And one of the things that came up right away was the importance of asking when and where instructional groupings of students could learn, and how teams of educators could be paired with those groupings of students in a world where no classroom was going to be big enough to fit, you know, the integrated co-taught classroom that had 28 students, two teachers, and three paraprofessionals, right?

Eric Tucker 18:19  

That might have been kind of workable last school year. And in this school year, we needed to be kind of intentional about how to space out or decompress. Which students were matched with which teams of educators in which spaces. In a way that kind of started by asking which approaches are we going to need to best seek — which approaches are going to be best suited to meet the needs of which learners. Or which learning approaches are going to best serve student needs. 

Eric Tucker 18:56  

And so this was a question that took different disciplines to think through. So we started by asking a lawyer with deep expertise in federal and New York State special education law and education law, what that regulatory context was. And then kind of descend to kind of a specific review with the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools of the Individualized Education Programs that were called for for our students. So the IEPs that our students had, what were the mandates? And given those mandates, what would classroom placements look during normal times, and how could we begin to think through how to realize some of those same mandates — like integrated co-teaching or a 12 to 1 to 1 context — within the context of the staff constraints and the public health constraints that we were thinking through. 

Eric Tucker 20:02  

We were really grateful to have the opportunity to work with PVDW, which is an architecture firm here in New York City, and to partner with EdTogether on a kind of specific analysis of how to envision space within the context of, you know, of special education constraints and social distancing. And that meant that we had an opportunity to kind of look at different configurations or to look at the kind of variety of scenarios that, you know, might evolve as we try to match service providers with students. That had a relationship to what the maximum capacity of rooms was, because sometimes a room fits eight students sometimes it fits 12, sometimes it fits 14 or 15. And working with architects who had a deep understanding of special education, and then with designers, including yourself, with a deep expertise in Universal Design for Learning, allowed us to think through both what were some of the needs that our students would have, for instance, if they became escalated or anxious in a context and felt like they needed to take their mask off.

Eric Tucker 21:23  

So how could you have a space to cool down within a classroom, including kind of sneeze guards or physical barriers, even in a context where you have mask wearing expectations and social distancing expectations. So really starting with what the needs of students were, and what their user journeys would be, and then building up assumptions around space and around matching students and adults in space, given what those commitments are for provide — for ensuring that students are connected, that they’re well, and that they have the supports they need to learn.

Gabrielle Schlichtmann 22:04  

Awesome. So I’m wondering now that you’ve done all the work on the map, and you’ve put it out, I mean, things are moving so fast. I’m wondering what you’re working on now, because we are rolling into the school year. And if you could tell us a little bit about that. And then if there’s anything you’ve learned that you would change about the scheduling map already, even though you’re just leading into school getting started.

Bennison Ntsakey 22:28  

Well, yeah, so as we design learning, and think about what the instructional scheduling looks like, we have to sort of step back and honor you know, the vision of equity, starting with doing no harm, right? And so we know the past 130-plus days has been incredibly tough and that when we — when our children and our learners and our communities go through a sort of adversity of losing a school community, we have to go back and work diligently around social-emotional support.

Bennison Ntsakey 23:04  

And so we began work on what we’re calling “success coaching,” which is going to be our approach, our tier one way of ensuring that every single learner has a champion that is dedicated to their well-being before we even get to instruction. And so when we think about a success coach, it is an adult who has a very small group of learners. And we want our learners to know this is your person, right? If you have a question about how to be successful today, they’re your person. Or sometimes you just want to check in on how you’re holding up, right? A lot has changed. And we know that strong positive relationships with adults is one of the prerequisites to feeling safe in a community and before again, we can get to those higher-level, you know, thinking work, children need to know that they can trust the adults around them. They need to know they have a go-to person. And larger than that, our communities, our families want to be able to know that they can call this one person and have responses to everything they’re going to need. So success coaching is really our approach to ensuring that we safely open in a way that addresses the sort of experiences of trauma and gets children ready to be able to learn.

Gabrielle Schlichtmann 24:24  

I love that, and in the Educating All Learners case studies where we talk to educators from all over the United States, over and over again we heard where kids were having success in this strange new learning context, at the core it was about those relationships — those one-to-one like “I am your champion, and we’re in this together” relationship piece. So that’s amazing. I’m really excited to learn more about that, guys, to implement it.

Bennison Ntsakey 24:56  

Yeah, it’s a process right? And I think that we are at a place right now where as a school, we’re really committed to becoming trauma sensitive, right? And the way to do that is to have a shared understanding. And so the world where there may be two adults who are spending 80% of their time doing that, we want to, you know, step back and say no, 100% of adults should be spending some time doing this. And so that just expands the range of people who are available to support children. And we really do believe that as we engage in this process, it will lead to a better understanding of how to actually respond to the traumatic responses we see from children, you know, whether it’s a behavior or the sorts of relationships that have been lost. 

Bennison Ntsakey 25:38  

Our goal with the with the work of success coaching, is to get to a place where we ensure safety, first and foremost. And then we ensure social-emotional well-being. And once we’re able to win on those two things, then we can actually deliver the sort of academic experiences that we’re committed to doing — and not doing this as a one-time thing, but doing this as a part of our core instructional framework, right? So before, we would do the work, the academics, and then go back and say, how do you feel, right? But we’re now starting off with saying, like, we want to check in with a set of protocols and questions that every adult can demonstrate and use. And ultimately, the responses we’re getting allows us to know what kind of intervention to put in place to support our learners.

Gabrielle Schlichtmann 26:25  

That’s awesome. And so it’s integrated together over time. And I feel like so many of us are — these are strange times, but I feel like we’re all learning about things that we’re going to take forward, right? We’re going to take these approaches forward because at their core, they’re really empowering to kids and families and supporting their success and their thriving.

Gabrielle Schlichtmann 26:49  

So I’m just wondering, to close, if either of the two of you have anything else that you’d like to say about the scheduling map or the other work you’re doing, or what you hope other school leaders or educators will take away from the things that you’ve shared.

Bennison Ntsakey 27:05  

I will share, and then I’ll pass it on to Eric to bring us home. I think the first big idea here that I will offer that as a school community we’re currently going through is, you know, one is start with the folks who are doing the work in your community and invite people. Widen the circle that is giving input on what’s going to be happening. So ask and listen, right? That matters. And then second is begin to follow the data, right? You’re going to start to see bright spots, so it’s important to highlight when those things happen, because it’s really going to be a tough transition back into schools. And then also, you know, being open, right? Some of the answers are going to come outside of your school district or your school community. And so that openness to continue to look at what’s working in other places is going to be critical. 

Bennison Ntsakey 27:58  

And I think the last thing I’ll say here around sort of like, what I want folks to think about as we go through this process is that it’s a cycle, right? The work is never done. So embracing the sort of like continuous feedback revision is how you actually demonstrate the sort of care that our families deserve, right? To say like, yes, we had a process a week ago, and today we have new information. And we’re going to evolve, right? Because that’s what it means to plan for the margins. It’s that design principle of saying we’re closer, but we’re never complete. We’re always evolving. And so that’s what I’ll offer here. And I’m really excited to take it day by day, step by step, with beginning to think about bringing educators to serve students and listening deeply to our families about getting this right. Because this is one of those moments where we get to design in a way that truly lays a pathway for learners to say, yes, that’s my school community, right? Yes, that’s my adult. Those people are committed to me. And I can show up every day, whether that is in person or remotely.

Gabrielle Schlichtmann 29:08  

Awesome. Eric, any last words?

Eric Tucker 29:12  

In closing, I would like to thank the leaders and the members of the Educating All Learners Alliance. There’s been incredibly important work done, since school doors closed, to make sure that resources and case studies are available for teachers and school leaders around the country, trying to make sure that all students are included in the plan.

Eric Tucker 29:43  

In a moment like this, it is important to reflect on and understand the experiences of young people who are made most vulnerable by our education system. Students with disabilities, students who have traditionally been disenfranchised by how public schools operate, need adults at this moment, not just to say that we understand that you have a lot of need, but we haven’t been able to get to the core part of the plan yet. We need to start by recognizing that we have played a role in perpetuating systemic bias and exclusion, as educators, as teachers, as administrators, and that this is an opportunity for us to work together to dismantle the parts of how we do school that get in the way of all learners having the education that they deserve.

Eric Tucker 30:42  

This is a moment for us to acknowledge that when school students don’t succeed at school, that’s because school has failed students, not because young people have failed. The problems of education are adult problems. They’re problems of design, and we have the opportunity to work together to make sure that we’re meeting the needs of each learner.

Eric Tucker 31:12  

This is also an opportunity for us to acknowledge that, to design for all learners, we need to design for young people who are most marginalized by the existing education system. I’m tremendously proud of the work that the Educating All Learners team has done with equity at the core, because it’s asked about what it looks like to look at the challenges of reopening and observing young people this fall, clear-eyed and with an understanding that if Beethoven, if Einstein were attending your school this fall, and you are running that hybrid model, or that remote learning model, or that blended model, would the approach you’re taking honor the brilliance the genius and potential of that scholar, right? Or would it reinforce patterns of excluding and marginalizing young people who learn differently, who have tremendous potential but too often have been discounted by how we do school in this country. 

Eric Tucker 32:24  

There’s a tremendous opportunity to put equity, anti-racism, anti-ableism, and a commitment to the brilliance of young people at the center of our work this fall. If you want to know how your plan is working, look into the eyes of a child. If you want to limit potential of children, right, don’t take the time to think through how to make sure that your teachers, your school community, is genuinely prepared to meet their needs to ensure that they’re connected, related, loved this fall.

Eric Tucker 33:10  

It’s an exciting opportunity this fall for us to work together to acknowledge that this is both a moment of tremendous anxiety and an opportunity for us to do even better by the teachers, the students, the families, who most need public schools to work in their favor. Thanks for the hard work you’re doing. And thanks for taking time to have this conversation today.

Gabrielle Schlichtmann 33:37  

Thank you both. That was a great point to end on, really keeping our commitment, recommitting to our students, and orienting from their perspective and needs. Thank you both so much for being with us today.

Bennison Ntsakey 33:53  

Thank you for having us — appreciate the opportunity to be here.


  • Instructional Program Scheduling Map: The scheduling map explores early directions in staff scheduling, class configurations, and planning considerations for general education and specialized settings, including those for special education.
  • Success Coaching Playbook: The playbook gives Success Coaches the tools to embrace strength-based mindsets and high expectations and cultivate motivation and engagement, so that they can foster the well-being of LAB scholars and accelerate academic growth.
  • Evidence of Learning and Thriving: Student User Journeys for Educating All Learners: This interactive resource walks through the back-to-school experience during the COVID-19 pandemic for a variety of students with disabilities in urban and rural settings.
  • Engage Equitably: This resource provides free, accessible, and public health–informed communication templates and guidance for the wide variety of situations schools may face during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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