Students at the Brookhaven Innovation Academy, which opened in September, have a research-based curriculum that incudes delving into real-world problems and learning how to code.

Making the Grade: Brookhaven school focuses on research, innovation

Three years ago, when the residents of Brookhaven voted to form a city, they also made it known they wanted a local school. To meet that goal, city leaders created a research-based, innovative center focused on the needs of contemporary students. The result was the August opening of the Brookhaven Innovation Academy, a public charter school that uses a lottery system to select students for kindergarten through sixth grade. The school plans to add seventh and eighth grades to accommodate the 390 current students, as well as to meet the demand of the waiting lists.

“We use research-based practices, personalized learning and small-group instruction to fill in any gaps,” explained Head of School Laurie Kimbrel. “Each student gets the specific educational program they need, largely through technology. They spend an hour every day in an online, personalized math and language arts program that lets gifted and talented students soar and grow.”

The curriculum was established around project-based learning that has students delving into a variety of real-world problems and questions.

“Our fifth graders began with a project exploring how we, as citizens of the South, should support the use of Confederate symbols in public and private spaces,” said Kimbrel. “To do that, they had to understand the causes and effects of the Civil War, which meant digging deeply into a question with no easy answer. The culmination of their project was a debate that was an engaging way for them to learn. It gave students an ownership and interest in what they were doing.”

Part of the research approach also involves having authentic audiences for student work and establishing partnerships with universities and businesses that can bridge what kids are learning in the classroom and the application of those lessons to real life. One of the first such partnerships has been forged with the Atlanta Tech Village, the Buckhead-based incubator of technology start-ups.

“We can send students there to visit and understand what it means to be a start-up and entrepreneur, and to see what that looks like in real life,” said Kimbrel. “And we can receive visitors from the Village. It ties in to the short project our fifth graders are doing on what it means to be an entrepreneur.”

Kelly Anne O’Neill, the Village community coordinator, said teaming with the academy marks the first time the Village has entered into a formal partnership with a school.

“We’ve done tours and field trips, but this will be a different way to connect with kids and let them hear our stories,” she said. “What we’re doing ties into their technology-based projects. The 300 companies in our building do different things using different types of technology, and kids can meet about 1,000 people working on endless possibilities.”

Students will also get to see how important it is to learn coding, something they can work with on school-issued laptops.

“Everything around us is based on code, and that will be more so in the future,” said Kimbrel. “It’s not just for job skills. It helps us understand the world around us – the phones and laptops – and it teaches logic and critical thinking.”

The biggest challenge for the new academy so far has been finding a permanent home. The ideal situation is to have a campus in Brookhaven, but at the moment, the school is operating from a property in Norcross.

“The majority of students hails from Brookhaven and the surrounding area, but we had to lease a temporary facility to start,” said Kimbrel. “But our goal is to get as close to Brookhaven as possible.”

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