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Building a Better Middle School

By Sarah Lindenfeld Hall
Kelsey Jones ’02 launches an independent school with an equity and inclusion focus. 
School was a place of safety and comfort for Kelsey Jones ’02. For 11 years, La Jolla Country Day School served as a foundation for her journey to college and career success. From playing softball on a picturesque field with a winning team to co-editing the yearbook, her memories of school are vivid and heartwarming. Yearbook photos of her on the Community Service Board or in her element with friends showcase a broad smile. She remembers receiving unwavering support and guidance from her teachers, who were building their own lifelong careers in the same supportive atmosphere.

One of those teachers, Susan Nordenger, now LJCDS’ assistant head of school for community engagement, can still see Jones as a bright student in her middle school English classroom, driven to build community. “I can remember her sitting on the quad,” Nordenger said. “She had the nicest group of girlfriends. …She was kind of the ringleader, in the middle of it, but a giggler and just really, really joyful and a very good student.” 

On that quad, Jones had no reason to think that her experiences were any different from other kids in the United States. “I just assumed that was the norm—that everyone had an education similar to that,” she said. 

But just out of college, she took a job teaching middle school math at a public school in Harlem, which opened her eyes to the struggles within the U.S. education system. And, years later, it would spur her and a colleague to found Brooklyn Independent Middle School, a private middle school that will enter its fifth year in fall 2023. 

The need for a more equitable and racially integrated education for students with a tuition model that afforded every person the opportunity to attend a private school were the main drivers for creating Brooklyn Independent. Giving kids the same kind of joyful and supportive experience she enjoyed at LJCDS is part of it, too, she said. 

“I don’t know if I would have envisioned myself being the type of person that would start a school. I don’t know that I saw that for myself,” said Jones, Brooklyn Independent’s co-head of school. “But there’s been something so magical about this.”

Survival 101 

Standing in front of classroom—or launching a school—wasn’t on Jones’ mind when she graduated from LJCDS and attended the University of Wisconsin. She was looking for a “practical” major, and accounting seemed like a good choice. She stuck with it, but “it just felt like a wrong fit from day one,” she said. “There was nothing that inspired me about accounting.” 

During her senior year, she realized she needed to pivot. When her roommates applied for a Teach for America position, so did Jones. On the day of her senior accounting final, she learned she was accepted and placed in a Harlem middle school, teaching math. 

While Teach for America offered some training, Jones had no curriculum, textbook or behavior response plan. “You literally know nothing,” she said. “It’s like Survival 101. And also, you need to care for and teach these kids who are in front of you, and there are 30 of them. It was a complete blur.”  

She doubled-down and worked hard, benefiting from the mentorship of a math coach and support from fellow Teach for America colleagues. But, unlike the experienced career teachers she had at LJCDS, her students didn’t have the same benefit. 

Her students, all Black and Brown, struggled with far more than math equations, but there were few resources to help them. For kids who needed so much— to be seen, heard, loved and taught—all they had was a first-year teacher with no real training. It wasn’t fair, she realized. 

“I saw a completely different educational experience than what I had been afforded,” she said. “And at the same time, I didn’t question it. But I should have questioned it because everyone should be afforded the type of education I received at La Jolla Country Day School. The school was doing a lot of great work but the opportunities were not there. The exposure wasn’t there. We might have talked about college, but the colleges the kids were going to get into, the resources weren’t there. And, like most schools, there was not enough support nor a focus on social-emotional learning to help students process the trauma in their lives.”  

She taught with Teach for America for three years. Frustrated with the education system, she went back to school, earning a master’s degree in education, educational leadership and administration from New York University. That was the first time she began to understand the history of inner-city education, particularly for students of color from low-income backgrounds. 

“It gave me so much perspective as to the amount of privilege I was afforded…and frustration as to how that is not afforded to everyone,” she said. 

Looking for Joy 

Her career would take her to a charter school serving low-income students of color. It was there that Jones connected with fellow teacher Gabriela Tejedor, who is Brooklyn Independent’s co-founder and co-head of school. The academically driven charter school had plenty of pluses, but for kids who weren’t so focused on academics, “every day felt painful,” she said. 

“At such a test-driven school, it too frequently felt like the focus was less on joy and more on results,” Jones shared. “Then we started to think, maybe there’s another way to do this. Kids deserve another option. That’s where Brooklyn Independent became an idea.” 

Over time, the picture became clearer of what they wanted to build. Market research revealed that Brooklyn-area families were desperate for more middle school choices. For Jones and Tejedor, middle school was the obvious place to start. They had years of combined experience teaching this age group, and they knew those years were a pivotal time in a child’s development.

“So many places don’t cater to adolescent development of a middle schooler,” Jones said. “They’re like children but trying to be adults. There are so many things that can throw off the life trajectory if they’re not in a safe, loving, nurturing place where they are seen for who they are, pushing them academically, building their passions and joys, and keeping them engaged and happy. For me, I really wanted to focus on a school that is grounded in joy.” 

From the start, the plan was to build a better middle school—an integrated space where equity and inclusion were the foundation of their mission. New York City’s schools remain among the most segregated in the country, but research shows that students benefit socially and academically from attending diverse schools. 

At Brooklyn Independent, everything—admission, hiring, curriculum and behavior response—is seen through an equity lens, Jones said. “We don’t sway from that mission. Our student body is both racially and socioeconomically diverse. But for us, this isn’t a thing to say. This is what our school is founded on. That is the core of our mission.” 

And they wanted to offer a private school setting that was available to everybody. Brooklyn Independent offers a unique sliding-scale tuition structure with 20 percent of students falling into five different tuition tiers that range from $0 to $42,500 a year. 

To build that place, Tejedor and Jones hustled. The idea formed in 2016, and the duo would regularly travel to Midtown Manhattan to meet with potential donors with little success. Eventually, they connected with Michael Patrick, now chair of their board of trustees, who had been on the board of another independent school in New York and became a guide and mentor. 

Things fell into place. In May 2019, an angel donor came along. They found a building in Fort Greene, a historic Brooklyn neighborhood that’s easily accessible to families by subway and bus. 

Jones, who was pregnant at the time, found herself birthing two things at once: Brooklyn Independent opened in September 2019. Her first child was born in November 2019. 

Dream in Action 

With one sixth-grade class of about 20 students in the school’s first year, everything was working until mid-March 2020. A family was exposed to a new illness, COVID-19, shutting the school down for what everybody thought would be a couple of weeks. It was the rest of the school year. 

Jones and Tejedor jumped into action, making sure students had computers and Wi-Fi access. They turned Friday field trips into virtual experiences. They invited guest speakers for online presentations. 

But it wasn’t easy. Admissions took a hit as families who had signed on started to drop out. A crowdsourced fundraiser bridged the financial gap. When the 2020–2021 school year began, Brooklyn Independent was able to return to a hybrid learning model of in-person and online school. By May 2021, Friday field trips came back. 

“It was incredibly challenging,” Jones said. “At the time, I was like, ‘If we can make it through this, we can make it through anything.’ I still believe that to be true. I thought that would be our hardest year, but I was wrong.” 

In reality, the growing pains of the school’s third year as it ballooned to 85 students across all grades— sixth, seventh and eighth—were the most stressful. The teaching staff doubled. They were helping their first graduating class get to high school. Now, in the school’s fourth year, the focus has been on improving what they have—adding electives, building a sports program and offering more student support. 

“My metric of success, ironically, for someone who is so math-minded, is actually not something that can be measured with numbers, but it’s joy. And our kids are happy,” Jones said. “I knew through the struggles and challenges that we were definitely doing something great. We needed to refine it.”

Manifestations for the Future 

Susan Nordenger, Jones’ former ljcds teacher, saw that joy and happiness in action during a January 2023 trip to New York City. Passionate, dedicated teachers were leading engaged students in classroom discussions and activities. Artwork dotted the walls. On a bulletin board, eighth-graders shared their “manifestations for the new year.” 

“I will…get into [the] high school I want,” one wrote, including a drawing of a cat. 

“In the name of God, I wholeheartedly manifest that I get better academically,” wrote another. 

“I want to manifest…celebrating being a working mom. Have lots of guilt of not being able to do it all, but what I can do is enough + amazing,” wrote Jones, who had her second child in April. 

Nordenger has followed Jones’ journey as she has built a school from scratch. Remembering Jones as a student, she’s not surprised by her accomplishments. 

“It filled my heart with so much joy because that’s who she is,” Nordenger said of her visit. “She’s in the center of things. That’s how I remember her—she made things happen; she was a positive influence. I can’t even imagine all that it took to create this amazing school…I’m not surprised, but I’m so impressed.” 

For Jones, there’s plenty to do, including the daily work of running a school and discussions about its future growth. Jones is excited for both of her children to attend. And at some point, she expects to step away from the daily operations, but not anytime soon. Maybe she’ll help other schools with similar missions become successful and sustaining. But for now, there are kids to teach and a school to grow. 

Last year, Brooklyn Independent hosted it’s first whole school student performance since the pandemic, and it was an unusual opportunity for Jones to stop and take in everything she’d helped to create. 

“When I looked around the room at the faces of our students, family members, teachers and staff members, I saw such joy and pride. In that moment, I thought about all the grueling years it took Gaby and I to get Brooklyn Independent off the ground, the challenges of getting through COVID and growing our school and realized how special it is to see your dream come to life. There is so much more work that needs to be done and so many more students to serve, but I am so proud of the school we have built.”

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