“All this was the early stages of an audacious public education experiment taking place in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, one that its founder hopes will revolutionize both how students learn and how teachers are trained. Instead of assigning one teacher to roughly 25 children, the New American Academy began the school year with four teachers in large, open classrooms of 60 students. The school stresses student independence over teacher-led lessons, scientific inquiry over rote memorization and freedom and self-expression over strict structure and discipline. The founder, Shimon Waronker, developed the idea with several other graduate students at Harvard. It draws its inspiration, he said, from Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite boarding high school in New Hampshire where students in small classes work collaboratively and hold discussions around tables.
But Mr. Waronker decided to try out the model in one of the nation’s toughest learning environments, a high poverty elementary school in which 20 percent of the children have been found to have emotional, physical or learning disabilities. The idea, he said, was to prove that his method could help any child, and should be widely used elsewhere. “I didn’t want to create an environment that wasn’t real for everyone else and then say, look at my success,” he said.”