History of Our Beloved Buildings

This coming week marks two very special anniversaries for The New Century School: Building North turns 124 years old on September 29th and Building South turns 87 on October 4th! To honor these occasions, let’s explore the history of these special places—how they came to be and what they meant and mean to Fell’s Point and Baltimore.

We’re lucky they’re still here, by the way. In 2006, developers planned to raze most of the site occupied by St. Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church (Building North) and its satellite buildings (including Building South) to make way for condominiums. Protestors and developers managed to reach a compromise that allowed the condos to go up in other parts of the church  grounds (see photo; the former St. Stanislaus school situated behind the church, the former parish hall nestled in the back right corner of the church’s parking lot, and the former friary on the corner of Ann and Aliceanna Streets), while the former church* itself and its adjacent former convent were preserved.

Aerial view of the corner of Ann and Aliceanna streets, circa 2006

Aerial view of the corner of Ann and Aliceanna streets, circa 2006

For the entire 20th century, St. Stan’s served the Polish Catholic community of Fell’s Point, finally closing in 2000 due to declining parishionership. As Baltimore’s first Polish Catholic Church, St. Stan’s was a symbol of community and ethnic identity to many and a landmark well worth putting up a fight for. Fell’s Point was a hub of Polish life in the late 1800s, offering employment in canning and lumber to an influx of immigrants. Because church activity pervaded every aspect of Polish culture, establishing a church was one of their first priorities, and the St. Stanilaus Society set to work raising the necessary funds. (The cost of the land in addition to erecting a church upon it amounted to $28,000.) They named the church after Stanislaus Koska, a 16th-century Polish saint who walked 350 miles to Rome to become a monk and died shortly after at only 18 years old.

Father Peter Koncz from Wilno, Poland was the first pastor but was murdered in 1888, possibly because of political turmoil brewing within the Polish Catholic community. His replacement was Father John Rodowicz, who ordered the first church torn down because of size (church membership was over 3,500) and lack of structural integrity, which he replaced with the stalwart St. Stan’s we know today. Several pastorates later, one Father Alphonse Figlewski ordered construction of a convent, which was blessed on October 4th, 1926 and conducted by the Felician Sisters.

Fast-forward to 1993, and the convent became Mother Seton Academy, a Roman Catholic tuition-free middle school for indigent 6th-, 7th-, and 8th-graders. The academy was named for Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born saint. The former principal of the academy, Sister Mary Bader, said of the school, “The school is not just about academics, but also about the children’s social and emotional needs.” Thus, from the very beginning, TNCS has occupied a place imbued with the values it continues to embody.

When the church closed in 2000, the academy wanted to stay put and perhaps expand into the church itself. The church administration who owned the land were considering commercial development for the satellite buildings, but leaving the academy building alone. For the other satellite buildings, they were hoping for adaptive reuse, but structural engineers could not approve those plans based on the extent of disrepair. Other ideas included turning the church into a museum with a gift and coffee shop and demolishing all other buildings, including the academy.

After years of negotiations, mostly contentious, the church and the convent buildings were purchased for $400,000 by Mother Seton Academy in 2006. As late as 2005, the future of the site looked very different from how it has turned out. Then plans were to demolish the convent, school, parish hall, and friary, leave “Four-Bay Mansion” (circa 1795 captain’s mansion that fronted Aliceanna) intact, and build condominiums with underground parking. Ultimately, the Fell’s Point Preservation Society held sway and alternative plans were made, giving us our beautiful school buildings and grounds. In 2009, St. Stan’s was officially protected by the City of Baltimore’s Commission for Architectural and Historic Preservation (CHAP). CHAP status prevented the church from being razed but also imposed numerous building restrictions that proved too many for the original condo developer.

As for Mother Seton Academy, they closed their Ann St. doors on the final day of the school year, June 5, 2009, only to reopen in a bigger, newly renovated building at 2215 Greenmount Avenue, where they continue to thrive. Their legacy also lives on in TNCS, which opened the following year and is another school devoted to fulfilling all aspects of its students’ lives. Building North followed 1 year later, giving us pre-primary classrooms and The Lingo Leap as well as Sanctuary Bodyworks (not affiliated with the school). TNCS maintains continuity with the history of its setting, but also moves us forward into a new time, a new century. TNCS also cares deeply about the surrounding community. Knowing a little more about our historical and cultural context will help us participate in and embrace this neighborhood to our fullest extent.

*The church building was never slated for demolition, but its Byzantine interior would have been.

St. Stan's Byzantine interior, early 20th century

St. Stan’s Byzantine interior, early 20th century

STEM Teacher Arrives at TNCS!

Ms. Roberts is thrilled to be part of TNCS

Ms. Roberts is thrilled to be part of TNCS

With the arrival of Ms. Alisha Roberts to The New Century School this year, the elementary program goes higher-tech. Ms. Roberts will teach primarily Math and Science (and Technology and Engineering, the other STEM subjects), while Mrs. Adriana DuPrau will focus on English Language Arts/Literacy and Global Studies. Elementary enrollment has expanded, requiring an additional teacher, so Head of School Alicia Danyali seized the opportunity to branch out in this way and allow each elementary teacher to focus on her preferred subjects, while still maintaing the all-around connectedness TNCS’s successful curriculum is based on. “Within each subject,” says Mrs. Danyali, “there are plenty of intersections with other subjects, so that students learning about how a bridge is built in Ms. Roberts’ class might then write a paragraph or essay about bridges with Mrs. DuPrau or even build his or her own bridge in art class with Mrs. Raccuglia.”

The timing is ideal. STEM is all over the media, and with good reason. STEM subjects are inherently investigative in nature, cultivating self-guided exploration and producing a greater understanding of the physical world. Ms. Roberts says, “STEM is important for everyday life; for example, we use math at the grocery store and at the bank. And science explains how the world works.” Another appeal of early STEM learning is the downstream payoff. Recently, NPR did a Planet Money story about what job fields yield the highest incomes. In “The Most (And Least) Lucrative College Majors, In 1 Graph,” STEM came out almost scarily far ahead (that discrepancy is another story). The focus of other media coverage is the nation’s big move to catch up to other developed countries, whom the United States currently lags far behind in depth and breadth of STEM education.

Even Elmo is getting in on the act. Sesame Street began incorporating STEM into their shows in 2009 with great success (and the usual helpings of silliness and multicolor fur) with segments like Super Grover 2.0 and his investigation superpowers; Murray the Monster’s science experiments; Elmo’s math musicals (“in ‘Guacamole,’ he quizzes the ‘Rhombus of Recipes’ and adds up the avocados on two trees”); and guest appearances from big stars like Jimmy Fallon, who played Wild Nature Survivor Guy. On September 24th, Sesame Street will add a component to their website called “Little Discoverers: Big Fun With Science, Math and More” with STEM-related games and activities for kids.

Why the big push all of a sudden? Studies show that U.S. kids lost interest in science by 4th grade under the former curriculum paradigm in which STEM subjects were completely segregated. They should be—and fundamentally are—connected with other disciplines (as TNCS is doing). As a result, this country will soon have a deficit of graduates with degrees in these subjects and may begin to falter in making those important innovations and discoveries that bolster humanity.

Hyperbole aside, Ms. Roberts says she came to science and math quite naturally, with her father and brother both in engineering. “It must run in the family!” she says and goes on to recount that after becoming consumed with physics in high school thanks to a very dedicated teacher, she entered college as a physics major, switched to biology, and did lots of chemistry along the way. She’s a model of the curiosity and engagement we hope TNCS students also demonstrate! But when some of her peers spoke to her about the education programs they were majoring in, she decided to give that a try, too, and ultimately fell completely in love with teaching. At TNCS, she unites both of her passions to our great fortune. “I love it,” she says. “I love the kids—they’re so motivated to learn more and it’s so easy to get them to work. The more work I give them, the more they want—it’s true! They love the work!”

A typical day for Ms. Roberts begins with her homeroom students, comprising the 2nd through 4th graders (pre-1st and 1st graders have homeroom with Mrs. DuPrau). They start with a list of “Must Dos and May Dos,” which consist of working with math and science topics in their workbooks, on the computer, at their work tables, and throughout the classroom and school grounds. May Dos often involve learning games through SuccessMaker (our Gracie’s favorite). The Scientific Method is emphasized, the step-by-step approach to problem-solving that Mrs. DuPrau introduced them to the prior year during Science Fair preparations. Ms. Roberts confirms that we can look forward to another Science Fair project for this school year as well and that her goal is for the students to come up with their own experiment to perform.

She then has 90 minutes with the younger elementary group, which she humorously compares to being in a Nationwide commercial (you know, the ones in which the kids say the funniest things?). In an exploration of “What’s in Your Lunchbox?” (a lesson on where our food comes from and how it’s processed for consumption), she asked the kids about the origins of chocolate, anticipating a discussion of the cocoa bean. She had to switch tack, however, when someone ventured that chocolate comes from Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and everyone gratefully chimed agreement. . . Out of the mouths of babes, indeed.

As mentioned, each lesson is integrated with whatever else the student happens to be learning, so there’s plenty of reading happening during Ms. Roberts’ class and likewise plenty of scientific discovery during Mrs. DuPrau’s time with the students. The STEM subjects are themselves also integrated, so that they are “tied together as one big whole,” in Ms. Roberts’ words. “I love working with the children,” she concludes. “They all have unique personalities and rates of learning, and I just love seeing them ‘get it’!”

Welcome to TNCS, Ms. Roberts!

TNCS Back-to-School Night

The New Century School‘s annual back-to-school night is a chance for parents to meet teachers, get a peek inside their kids’ school day, and reconnect with and meet other parents. Last night’s was no exception. Teachers report that although the school year has just begun, so far things are going extremely well among the group of mixed returning and new students. True to the Montessori model, the older children have done a beautiful job of welcoming their younger schoolmates and showing them the ropes. TNCS has reached a milestone: it has now existed long enough to have graduated a kindergarten class, meaning there are now half returning and half new students.

During the hour and a half session, teachers explained any changes for the 2013–2014 school year, described a day in the life of a TNCS student, and fielded questions. Specific curriculum points were not handled here; this event was more of an overview. Curriculum discussions will be held during Parent Workshops to take place in October and February (see school calendar here).

Ch-ch-ch-changes

The biggest adaptation so far this year has been with the language program—which is TNCS’s hallmark. Last year, “pull-outs” were implemented, in which students left their home classroom to attend formal language instruction in another classroom. After careful consideration, TNCS administration decided to more fully embrace an immersion style of language learning, school-wide. This move has two huge advantages: 1) research shows that language acquisition happens more organically and therefore more readily and completely via immersion, and 2) this model stays true to Maria Montessori’s conviction that students will learn best if they are given a full morning in their “work zone,” (i.e., their classroom). They develop autonomy, self-confidence, and skill when they can move and work at their own individual paces. So far, this change seems to be having very positive results. Parents report hearing more and more Spanish and Mandarin being casually spoken at home, and one new student who arrived to Mr. Seller’s class speaking neither English, nor Spanish, nor Mandarin is picking up Spanish rapidly enough to be able to adequately communicate his needs.

The immersion is effected by employing native-speaking teaching assistants, Spanish in some classes, Mandarin in others. In Mr. Seller’s class, the assistant, Señora Gonzalez, is a native Spanish speaker, and she speaks exclusively Spanish in class. Students are expected to respond to her in kind and are gently reminded to do so, when necessary. Assistants not only assist the lead teacher, but they also lead certain lessons as well, so that students are learning a given lesson in the foreign language—not just vocabulary, actually learning about a topic in something other than English. Mr. Sellers’ students also get exposure to Mandarin when a Chinese assistant from another class “trades time” with Sra. Gonzalez. Again, the students get the benefit of staying put and not having to interrupt whatever work they are doing to switch gears. The Mandarin teacher comes to them (or the Spanish teacher if they are in a classroom with a Chinese assistant).

Behind the scenes, Xie Laoshi (a.k.a., Jewel) and Señora Capriles orchestrate this “shuffle” of assistants to ensure that all students get sufficient exposure to both foreign languages. They also drive the foreign language curriculum. With their language expertise as well as thorough Montessori training, they are well suited to this role, making class materials and overseeing the framework.

A Day in the Life

These bins hold students' indoor shoes and any paper work they accumulate throughout the week.

These bins hold students’ indoor shoes and any paper work they accumulate throughout the week. They visit this shelf first thing on entering the classroom.

A typical primary student day starts with exchanging outdoor shoes for slippers to signal to students that it’s time for work to begin. “Circle time” comes next, during which the class sings, greets each other, and goes over daily topics such as the calendar. Circle time might also contain a group lesson on the monthly theme. Currently, primary students are learning about fruits and vegetables, among other topics. Next, teachers invite their students to find some individual work. Mr. Sellers delved a bit into the Montessori concept of work, explaining that “work” in the Montessori classroom is not supposed to be an unpleasant or difficult task. Rather, it’s a desired undertaking, intended to empower the student by offering productive and meaningful activity. “Their work prepares their brains for growth and development,” he said. “Even Practical Life work is preparing them for language and reading, for instance, by instilling that left-to-right progression” (see picture below).

This kid-sized sink represents Mr. Sellers' Practical Life area.

This kid-sized sink represents Mr. Sellers’ Practical Life area.

Parents had lots of questions about how work “works.” At TNCS, there are really only two work rules, say teachers. First is that the students treat all materials with respect, which includes respecting the “work cycle” of choosing an activity, completing it, and putting it away when finished. The second is that students work with only what they are developmentally ready for. So, for instance, 3-year-olds might be naturally drawn to the very pretty bead cabinet, but because they are probably not ready for “skip-counting” (counting by 5s, 10s, 100s, etc.),  they are encouraged to choose something more suitable.

Bead frame

The bead frame is particularly fascinating . . . but hands off until you’re ready :)!

Where does the teacher come in, amidst all of this lovely independent work? When the teacher sees that a student has fully engaged with a particular exploration, the teacher might come along and demonstrate the next step with a material, or introduce a new material altogether. The teacher guides the student to make additional discoveries. The teacher might also guide an older student to mentor a younger one. With a 3-year age range (age ~3 years to age ~5 years) in the primary classroom, many such opportunities arise. The younger kids are eager to please their slightly older peers, and the older kids develop self-confidence by sharing their knowledge. This lovely dynamic pervades school wide, in fact, among classrooms, not just within them.

After a lengthy work period (that will have included snack at some point), primary kids go to lunch, play on the playground, and then enter their afternoon period. For kindergartners, this means instruction with Mrs. Lawson and Mrs. Lazarony. For the 4+-year-olds, otherwise known as the “resters,” this means 20 minutes of quiet time followed by continued work. For the littlest ones, it’s naptime, a legal requirement in the state of Maryland. So-called “specials” also take place in the afternoons and include music, art, and gym.

It was clear that several parents in attendance were recalling their own early education less than fondly and wishing TNCS had been available to them. Mrs. Lawson (also a primary teacher) summed up TNCS’s specialness best: “I love Montessori because children really learn with hands-on materials instead of just by rote. They can tell you why things are the way they are.”

We’re back to school, and the kids are alright.

School Daze: Where To Educate City Kids?

As parents of school-aged children, one of our biggest and most important decisions is where to educate our little ones. Keep them at home? Send them to school? Where?! Which one?! Choosing can elicit more questions than provide answers. In this post, we invite you to participate in this ongoing and important dialogue. Please share your experience, your thoughts, your ideas—whatever you like—to help us flesh out this issue. And please note, no value judgments are meant to be expressed within. Please excuse generalizations, which are made only for the sake of starting the conversation. We urge you to listen to the podcasts (links below) to hear details and specific anecdotes, if you have not done so already.

Last month, WYPR ran a story on The Lines Between Us, about this dilemma. Three mothers share their experience with Baltimore schools and the choices they made: public, charter, or private/independent (download the podcast here). One mother on the show spoke about hearing profanity and observing alarmingly disruptive behavior from students in grades K through 8 at her neighborhood public school, leading her to enroll her daughter in a private parochial school. Though certainly not seen at every city public school, this vignette is all too common, unfortunately. Sadly, quality of education is actually a secondary consideration to safety in some of our more beleaguered schools. Also unfortunately, neighborhood schools are not created equal. Poor neighborhoods tend to have worse schools. Roland Park residents, by contrast, have access to arguably the best public schooling in the city.

Not so long ago, families simply moved out of the city into the suburbs—in droves, in fact—to avail themselves of better school prospects. Also profiled on WYPR (on Midday with Dan Rodricks; download the podcast here), Maryland resident and father Michael J. Petrilli writes about the issue in his book, The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools:

Many of today’s parents yearn to live in or near the lively, culturally vibrant heart of the city–in diverse, walkable neighborhoods full of music and theater, accessible to museums and stores, awash in ethnic eateries, and radiating a true sense of community. This is a major shift from recent generations that saw middle class families trading urban centers for suburbs with lawns, malls, parks, and good schools. But good schools still matter. And standing in the way of many parents’ urban aspirations is the question: Will the public schools in the city provide a strong education for my kids? To be sure, lots of parents favor sending their sons and daughters to diverse schools with children from a variety of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. But can such schools successfully meet the educational needs of all those different kids? How do middle class children fare in these environments? Is there enough challenge and stimulation in schools that also struggle to help poor immigrant children reach basic standards? Is there too much focus on test scores? And why is it so hard to find diverse public schools with a progressive, child-centered approach to education?

Recently, a report of  Baltimore City schools showed that enrollment in city schools started upticking in 2008, the first increase in 40 years. In the last 5 years, ~3,000 more students have been enrolled in city schools. Now that families are staying in Baltimore and investing in the city (or are stuck with an upside-down mortgage, as may be the case), where are we sending our children to school, and what goes into making that decision? Spoiler alert! Mr. Petrilli and his family moved from Takoma Park to Bethesda, where their neighborhood school happens to be attended by mostly students from the middle and upper eschelons of the socioeconomic spectrum.

Many of The New Century School parents have already faced this decision and opted for TNCS for the long haul. Others move their kids to public schools when the kids are old enough to be eligible or they win a spot in a charter school lottery. Still others are prolonging the decision. Does a stigma exist for those who choose private schools over public? Critics argue that parents should be investing in the city as a whole by sending their kids to the local school and that by not doing so, they are turning their backs on their community. On the other hand, say some, we don’t want to use our kids as social experiments and possibly risk squandering their education years.

But the key here is not that TNCS is private so much as it is independent, free to strike out and forge new educational territory, to revolutionize learning. We need choice. Hands-on, progressive education is hard to do in public schools, where test scores are used to measure a school’s success, too often forcing teachers to “teach to the test.” It’s also very true that TNCS cares deeply about the surrounding community and actively demonstrates this support in a number of ways such as by hunger outreach, investing in sustainable energy, and engaging in city programs.

We close by acknowledging that there is no single right answer here; ultimately, this is a personal decision for each family, taking into account the particular factors relevant to each. So, please, chime in to keep this important dialogue open and productive!

TNCS is an independent yet very city-oriented school.

TNCS is an independent, yet very city-oriented progressive school.