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Project-based learning is the future, says mayoral candidate

Despite attending an academically rigorous and highly regarded Orthodox Jewish high school in Brooklyn, Jack Hidary credits his after-school activities, like computer club, for preparing him for the real world.

“What struck me was that the textbook-heavy message that has been around for so long really needed to be modified if you’re really going to engage students and prepare students for the kind of jobs we have now in our economy,” said the tech entrepreneur who formally launched his mayoral campaign this week after unofficially entering the race a month ago.

Hidary said he would “build on the good work of Mayor Bloomberg,” who he said had laid a foundation for education by fighting for the right to close, open, and change schools. But he said his administration would focus on what happens inside the classroom, by making project-based learning a cornerstone of his education policy.

At a campaign event Wednesday night and again in an interview today, Hidary said there are only five or six schools in the city that fully offer the instructional approach he favors. He cited East Side Community High School, Pathways in Technology Early College High School, and the citywide gifted Brooklyn School of Inquiry as examples of schools that are challenging students through performance-based assessments rather than pencil-and-paper tests and through collaborative assignments with practical applications.

As mayor, he said, he would want to get that number to at least 100.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Hidary said. But with targeted and ample training for teachers, he said, overhauling how students learn is possible.

“We cannot expect and ask our teachers to engage in new approaches without providing appropriate professional development,” he said. Also, with students focused on their projects and working with one another, teachers can have time to work together and improve, he said, adding that he would like to make it easier for teachers to attend daylong conferences away from their schools.

“The problem is now that we haven’t given our teachers the appropriate time and space to get these kinds of trainings,” he said. He also said, “It’s very very important to provide teachers with a tool set that they can adapt.”

More time for professional development and making fully developed curriculum available are major demands of the United Federation of Teachers, but Hidary said he hasn’t yet formally met with the powerful teachers union. He said what separates him from other candidates is that he’s “free and clear” of special interest allegiances.

“I really want to focus on the student and on the teacher,” he said.

Hidary said it “baffles” him that other candidates want to undo Bloomberg’s policy changes — he chalked it up to them being career politicians who must make promises to win support. If Bloomberg hadn’t gained mayoral control of the schools and laid the groundwork for change, Hidary wouldn’t be able to move the schools forward with his own reforms, he said.

Hidary might also be the only candidate to pepper his talk about education policy with thoughts about how children’s brains develop: He studied philosophy and neuroscience major at Columbia University before entering the technology and energy fields as an entrepreneur.

Hidary, who plans to release more details of his education platform in the coming weeks, said he has consulted with a wide range of people with experience in education. In particular, he said, John Katzman, who founded the Princeton Review and now heads the education information company Noodle, and Nitzan Pelman, who recently stepped down as the New York City director of the Citizen Schools after-school program, have advised him on education policy. (Pelman also sits on GothamSchools’ advisory board.)