The New Century School: A Retrospective and Prospective Look

This week saw the end of the 2012–2013 school year, so with this post we look back at how far The New Century School has come in its 3 years of existence (with an additional 3 years as Patterson Park Montessori), both in general and in terms of pioneering an elementary program. In addition, we’ll look ahead to what Fall 2013 and beyond promises for TNCS students and families to see how TNCS is “growing up,” right along with the students who attend it!

New Kid on the Block No Longer

Robin Munro joined TNCS as enrollment coordinator in 2011, when TNCS was still very new to its current Fells’ Point location. She recalls that in her first month at TNCS she was in a bit of a scramble to fill four vacant spots in the pre-primary Spanish classroom. “This year,” she enthusiastically reports, “we have 24 pre-primary Spanish students. And for next year, we have families clamoring to come in—our preschool now has a wait list 30 students long.” Way to go!

TNCS is located in the heart of Fells' Point at 724 South Ann St.

TNCS is located in the heart of Fells’ Point at 724 South Ann St.

Here is the hard data on total school enrollment:

2010–2011: 75
2011–2012: 95
2012–2013: 115
2013–2014: 130*

*growth “slowed” as we approach our maximum expansion goals for preschool

The numbers show that TNCS has nearly doubled in size, a clear testament to the school’s values and its successful implementation of a curriculum that supports and maintains those values. TNCS’s mission has always been “to educate and excite young minds,” says school co-founder Roberta Faux. And, part of that has always been foreign language immersion. As the original student body has grown through preschool and then kindergarten, however, TNCS had to make some adaptations in order to accommodate the needs of elementary schoolers. In terms of growth, Ms. Munro says, “The focus now is on elementary; that is where we will see our numbers grow, by about 10–15 each year. We are excited to open our second classroom in the Fall, and we’re adding a math & science teacher to join Mrs. DuPrau, our excellent elementary teacher who has been with us since the elementary program began in Fall 2010.”

No measure of how well TNCS is flourishing would be complete without mention of The Garden Tuck Shop Program started by Chef Emma Novashinski in the school’s second year. TNCS students and families are lucky indeed to have her lovingly prepared lunches from locally sourced fresh ingredients as well as access to the greenhouse she also runs. Students not only benefit from the healthful meals, but also learn what balanced diets are and develop lifelong nutritious eating habits.

Jenny Raccuglia’s art classes, added in the Fall of 2012, are another component of TNCS education that make the school that much more special. In parallel with TNCS’s overarching spirit of innovation and creativity, she encourages students to solve problems and think through their projects in the process of a particular art assignment. She emphasizes that there are multiple ways to create and that the students should find their ways rather than asking, “how do I do this?”. They develop self-reliance in addition to reaping all of the cognitive gains that creative processes yield.

Then there’s so-called “Building North,” which also opened in the Fall of 2012 and gave us additional classrooms, an auditorium, and The Lingo Leap gym. It was such a treat to see the Winter and Spring performances on school grounds this past school year. Thanks go to Martellies Warren for elevating the performances to new heights with his musical expertise (another addition we’re so lucky to have!).

Finally, the staff overall has really come into its own. With the most dedicated lead teachers, students just plain love coming to school. Primary teachers Mrs. Lawson and Ms. Lazarony have been on board since the beginning, as has Mandarin immersion pre-primary teacher Xie Laoshi and afore-mentioned elementary teacher Adriana DuPrau. With Jonathan Sellers and Mr. Warren joining as primary teachers in 2012 and a new elementary teacher joining next year in addition to all of the wonderful assistants, before- and after-care members, and the administration team, the staff is the warm, close-knit community that is the true heart of this school. (See their bios here and photos below.)

What We Have Learned So Far

Thus, TNCS continues to refine its offerings, giving a rigorous yet well-rounded “whole-child” education. Insofar as educating and exciting young minds has always been the core school purpose, TNCS also continues to hone and adapt this mission to most optimally execute it. Ms. Faux says, “Over the past few years, we have only become more aware of the organic and non-linear nature of education. Education is a process; it is an experience that cannot be scripted. It is the very thing that allows students to make connections in the world around them and discover their own passions.” In many ways, TNCS is itself a reflection of this process of discovery in its receptivity to progressive approaches and its own emphasis on innovation.

Again, key to this is foreign language instruction. “Our language program,” says Ms. Faux, “fundamentally changes how our students think about the world: intellectually, socially, culturally, emotionally. To this end, it fosters an innovative capacity and what we believe is an intellectual advantage. We continue to integrate immersion in more facets of our curriculum. It is a process that is constantly evolving as it has to be in a constantly evolving world.”

Perhaps one of the bigger themes to have emerged is that immersion in foreign languages really is the best way to teach and learn those languages. More conventional approaches just don’t serve. Says Ms. Munro: “I have been incredibly pleased by how our Head of School, Alicia Danyali, has raised the bar of the non-English language curricula to bring us more sharply aligned with our mission of offering language immersion in Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. It is very commonplace for language teachers to use flashcards and videos to teach. This is not immersion. This is what we already know to be an ineffective method for children to learn language.”

The specific changes that Ms. Danyali has implemented include hiring Language Curriculum Specialist Lisa Warren, profiled in Language Curriculum Specialist Joins TNCS. Ms. Danyali also saw that some language opportunities were being missed. Although the pre-primary students are in full immersion, and elementary students, for example, did a Science Fair project entirely in Spanish, the primary classes’ language instruction needed a boost. Midway through the Spring 2013 semester, language in the primary and elementary classrooms switched to the immersion model. This meant that some changes to staff who could not let go of traditional language pedagogy had to be made, but, as Ms. Munro puts it, “We do not teach didactically;we offer immersion.” (Research unambiguously supports this notion. See Resources and Links for specifics.)

Other changes include a sharper focus on community responsibility. TNCS is completely wind-powered as of 2012, thanks to Clean Currents. Volunteerism and charitable donations are also widely encouraged. Families commit 8 volunteer hours to TNCS each school year, and the school periodically offers opportunities to give to Heifer International, Beans & Bread more locally, and others.

The Near and the More Distant Future

In keeping with the evidence gleaned from the first 3 years, language and innovation will be continuing targets as we look ahead to how the school matures. Says Head of School Alicia Danyali, “In the near future, TNCS’ focus moving forward is to continue to be a premier language immersion school in the Baltimore area, offering progressive, quality education to preschoolers through grade 8 (adding a grade per year, and going through fourth for the 2013–2014 school year).” Fourth grade—my how we’ve grown! “The vision for elementary is small class sizes and excellence in Spanish and Mandarin Chinese immersion,” adds Ms. Munro, who has a daughter quickly approaching elementary age as well as a daughter about to move up from the pre-primary to the primary classroom.

Many parents might be wondering, where will TNCS put all the kids as the student body continues to grow up as well as enroll new students each year? And who will teach them? Says Ms. Faux: “Looking ahead, we are doing space planning in our current location as well as investigating other space options. We continue to aggressively pursue talented staff. In the Fall of 2013, we will welcome a new elementary STEM teacher.” Importantly, though, in the midst of all these exciting changes, most head teachers are returning, ensuring that instructor continuity that is the hallmark of a Montessori-inspired school.

In addition to the increased emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, language programming throughout the school will reflect the structural changes piloted as this semester closed. “I am so excited about the language model changing. Our assistant teachers in the Primary classes are being trained in-house by our experienced Montessori certified lead teachers to teach two of the five areas of the Montessori classroom: Practical Life and Geography & Cultural Studies,” says Ms. Munro. “That brings us in line with true immersion: teaching content in the language.” The significance cannot be overstated. Just as the elementary kids did a Science Fair project in Spanish this past Spring (and will continue in this vein), so too will the primary students work with the Montessori materials in Spanish and in Chinese. Language “pull-outs” are no more.

As for TNCS’s broader vista, here again, while the school’s foundation will remain rock solid, flexibility and adaptability in an ever-changing educational context will also be important. “Our future will stress how we can cultivate an innovative mindset in our pupils,” says Ms. Faux. “Our students, like our staff, continue to experiment in becoming creative risk-takers, confident collaborators, active learners. Our future world will force us to deal with ambiguity and complexity, and we want the next generation to be able to make sense of their surroundings and make a positive difference in the world.” Specifically, she adds, “we are also pursuing developing software internally for individualized education in foreign language as well as STEM.” Exciting news indeed!

The future is looking bright indeed!

The future is looking bright indeed!

“In short,” says Ms. Munro, “the word is out: TNCS is the place for innovative childhood education. And quite frankly, we are in line with the current mission of Baltimore City, the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance, and even the public and charter schools: keep families in the city!” I talk with some of our families and maintaining the block community is important to them,” she adds. “The more choices—this is America, after all!—the better.”

As for the distant future? “Well, we just attended the kindergarten graduation for my eldest daughter. I look forward to seeing her next cross the stage in Building North to accept her eighth grade diploma. Maybe she will even give the class graduation speech . . . in Mandarin,” says Ms. Munro proudly.

I think we can all look forward to that! In summary, TNCS is leading the charge in so many important areas of education as it grows out and up. We hope you are not only enjoying the ride but also are in for the long haul. Regardless, we welcome your feedback, your constructive criticism, your participation in this most worthy conversation. We want the best possible education for all of our kids—as Ms. Faux so beautifully put it, “school should be where kids discover their passion.”

2 thoughts on “The New Century School: A Retrospective and Prospective Look

  1. Apologies for length, but there was A LOT to talk about :)!

  2. Pingback: You Say Tomayto, I Say Tomahto | The New Century School Blog

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