On Thursday, January 9th, The New Century School held its first-ever Town Hall meeting for an auditorium full of eager participants. The Town Hall was conceived, says Admissions Director and Town Hall Moderator Robin Munro, because “We are a new school, so meetings like this are critical. We will have a meeting like this once a year for families to get a state of the school update and have a forum to ask questions.” The meeting followed directly on the heels of an Elementary Information Night, and the two presentations together made for an informative and synergistic event. What made it especially effective is the obvious level of planning and organization that went into it as well as the efforts made to accommodate families to quite an extensive degree. Free childcare with dinner, free parking, and wine and hors’ d’oeuvres were some of the inducements to attend, but the real attraction was in being able to submit questions well ahead of time to allow the event speakers to shape the discussion accordingly. This evening was clearly for us.
Thus, as Ms. Munro said, TNCS’s status as a new school means that it is still maturing, becoming itself. To alleviate the uncertainty inherent in that development process, the Town Hall gave the audience some transparency into the inner workings of our beloved school. Based on the topics submitted by attendees, Ms. Munro organized the overall discussion into seven umbrella categories: Growth, TNCS Leadership, Tuition and Fundraising, Standardized Testing, TNCS Community: Internal and External, Life after TNCS, and TNCS Policies. These topics combine to provide a comprehensive overview of the school and its future direction. Following is a synopsis.
The growth category was subdivided into Projections, Instruction Space, and Curriculum. Projections: What are the school’s growth plans for the future? Individual questions under this topic centered on whether expansion into a Middle School is likely and were mostly submitted by parents whose children are currently in the elementary program (or are about to be) and hoping to stay awhile! One family is even considering moving to within walking distance of the school. Are enrollment numbers supporting this plan? A resounding yes! is the unequivocal answer. For enrollment, near-future projections are 150–200 students school wide (i.e., including preschool, elementary, and middle school). The plan is to stay bottom heavy—keep the preschool large because it feeds the upper levels but there is a natural attrition rate as families move or change schools as their particular situations warrant. Here is the breakdown:
- Pre-primary (~24 students): Maintain Spanish and Mandarin Chinese immersion.
- Primary, including K (70–90 students): Maintain Montessori model with mixed-age, small class sizes in a 3-year cycle.
- Elementary + Middle School (60~80 students): Expand to four or five mixed-age/mixed-grade classes, including 1st and 2nd (and “pre-1st” as needed), 3rd and 4th, 5th and 6th, and 7th and 8th.
Regarding elementary, the target size is no more than 16 students per class to allow for TNCS’s signature individualized, differentiated instruction. TNCS is currently approved to teach through Grade 5 and will continue annually adding a grade through Grade 8. TNCS “officially” follows basic Maryland age guidelines in grade assignments (i.e., must be age 5 by September 1st to enter Kindergarten and so forth), but internally, students are treated as individuals, not as a level. Some fun elementary facts include:
- In 5 years, TNCS will graduate its first 8th-grade student
- The TNCS Middle School will “open” Fall 2016
- TNCS’s first 8th-grade class will graduate Spring 2019 (whoa!)
Sound like a too-lofty goal? Not when you consider that, so far, TNCS has hit every major planned milestone, including opening an Elementary in Fall 2010, launching a Greenhouse in Spring 2011, implementing a School Lunch Program in Fall 2011, establishing a Gymnasium and Performance Space in Fall 2012, and bringing in Gerstung gym equipment and the Imagination Playground in Spring 2013. With this kind of momentum, not only is a Middle School a certainty, but a playground redesign for a Fall 2014 launch is also well within reach (see below)! Finally, while all of this goes on around us, internally, the administration will be renewing their focus on school infrastructure, such as curricula, materials, teacher and student retention, etc.
Instruction Space: How will the school accommodate future classes? This question is immediately relevant. With a Kindergarten class about to join the ranks of elementary in a few months, another classroom as well as another teacher are on the horizon. Said Ms. Munro, “We have the physical space to grow. Next semester we are moving the library to shelves lining the halls, and the art room to the existing library to open up a third classroom.” Thus, all three elementary classrooms will be on the third floor. The library occupying the hall spaces is sheer genius—the constant exposure to books will likely trigger increased interest in reading them! Even bigger news is that TNCS now owns the 710 building as well as the 724 S. Ann St. location, providing an additional 1,500 square feet of space on two levels. Already home to The Lingo Leap and to the pre-primary classrooms, making use of other parts of this building is a logical next step. A Middle School Science Lab will eventually occupy part of this space.
Finally, to round out TNCS’s cozy but expanding campus, big plans are afoot for a playground redesign. “This is the year to plan and make changes to create a space that can work for our preschool, our elementary students, and our future middle school students,” said Ms. Munro and asked for parent volunteers to get creative and make some suggestions. Other sources TNCS will tap for design inspiration are MICA students, who might get class credits or other incentives for their assistance. We don’t want “big plastic structures,” said Ms. Munro, “and you’ll be relieved to hear that we want to get rid of the rocks!” (This last is a nod to the parents of some of the younger students whose pockets are always full of washing machine–destroying pebbles.)
Curriculum: What is the curriculum for Upper Elementary and Middle School? Questions here were very specific. Parents want to know what the curriculum will “look like” as the students mature away from the lower Montessori levels. Will there be a Chinese and Spanish language program, additional after-school enrichment, physical fitness testing, musical instrument instruction? How will TNCS deal with Common Core standards, if at all? How does TNCS compare with local public and private schools in terms of academic achievement?
Being independent and committed to small-classroom size, TNCS can and will “do it all.” Art, music, foreign languages, and physical education will continue to be spotlighted—yet not at the expense of rigorous instruction in science, math, and language arts (reading, writing spelling, etc.). Head of School Alicia Danyali addressed these curriculum questions; please read TNCS Elementary Information Night: A School Grows and Flourishes for details. Regarding Common Core, which is often vilified in the media, TNCS is fortunate to be able to cherry-pick the best of that approach and implement selectively. It’s not all bad, she says, and “[We] use it when it speaks to what’s going on in the classroom.” The guiding principle of Common Core is to promote independent learning, problem-solving ability, and critical thinking, all ideals very much in line with TNCS’s philosophy. It’s important to note that rather than dictating the sequence of the day, Common Core at TNCS supplements what’s already happening.
True to TNCS form, however, simply continuing is categorically insufficient as a future plan. TNCS was built on innovation in education, and the Co-Executive Directors Roberta Faux and Jennifer Lawner continuously explore new approaches to inspire kids to learn and be excited about that learning. The International Baccalaureate is one such program on the horizon. “The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect,” through challenging and rigorous education programs. Elementary teachers Ms. DuPrau and Ms. Roberts also chimed in to assure parents that they “don’t just show up and teach whatever they feel like that particular day.” Expectations are high, yet teachers are never asked to simply “teach to the test.” They have freedom to accomplish their goals how they deem suitable, based on and tailored specifically to the individuals they teach.
This topic was evidently on the minds of many TNCS families and seemed to center on whether a Board of Directors exists or will be appointed. Said Moderator Ms. Munro, “The simple answer to this questions is ‘No,’ and the deeper answer really starts to address how the school was founded, the state of the school today, and where the school is headed in the future. I think [the Co-Founders/Co-Executive Directors] can speak a bit more to how the school was founded and to some of the advantages of staying small and not having a Board of Directors at this stage of development.”
Excuse the oversimplification, but, basically, the school is still coming into its own and needs some room to establish firm footing before transforming into something else entirely. Let’s face it, we like the school, and “our kids have benefited tremendously from what [the Co-Founders] have built,” as one dad in the audience eloquently put it. From what we’ve seen so far, we can trust that it’s headed in the right direction.
Said Ms. Lawner, “Staying small allows us to really use peoples’ talents, to cultivate those talents the same way we cultivate your children’s talents and skills.” She elaborated on the school’s beginnings and how she and Ms. Faux investigated setting up as a non-profit or funding the school through grants but quickly found that grant money tends to go to charter schools, which are bound by restrictions that TNCS simply can’t support. “We were able to self-fund and grow this, and it’s working very well” she said. “In this stage of our development, we feel that staying small allows us to make the kind of bold decisions we feel we need to make.” She used Mandarin instruction as an example of something that likely would not get approval via a grant route.
A parental advisory board (a 501c, for example) is something very different from getting and even acting on parent feedback—which is welcome and encouraged, added Ms. Faux. “We are doing something different and not running everything through a committee—the way every other school has been run,” she said. She left the possibility open of becoming a 501c school in future, so long as that aligns with the school’s values at that time. Also, changing to non-profit status is not easily achieved. The Co-Founders roles, moreover, would be unclear. If someone is ready to endow the school, say in 20 years, then that might be the time to become a proper non-profit. In the present, however, as one parent put it, the advantages conferred by for-profit status far outweigh those of non-profit status.
Ms. Munro stepped up once more to review some of the ways that parents can make their voices heard in school-related issues. Again, feedback is always welcome and encouraged, and meetings such as the now-annual Town Hall, Open Houses, and Information Nights are ideal forums for asking questions and weighing in. Another suggestion she made was to formalize a PTA-esque parent committee through the Parent Liaison. “We are open,” she said. “If what you want is a formal quarterly meeting, we’ll make that happen.” The message is clear: Structurally, things need to stay as they are for the near future, but within that framework, there’s plenty of maneuverability to accommodate families’ reasonable desires.
Tuition and Fundraising
This question came up from parents wanting to know how to help raise money for the school (thanks parents!). Here again, grants probably are not within TNCS’s reach. For now, the small annual tuition increase every year and the expanding student body may suffice.
Within the for-profit structure, a separate 501c will exist soon to fund scholarships and thus make TNCS accessible to a wider student pool.
“Will TNCS be implementing standardized testing?” was another popular question. “To be in line with the other private schools, it makes sense,” said Ms. Danyali. “We are leaning toward the ERB, but it’s not set in stone yet. We want something that would match this independent, dual-language learning environment.” According to the ERB–Lighting the Pathways to Learning website (ERB stands for Education Resources Bureau), “ERB is the only not-for-profit member educational services organization offering assessments for both admission and achievement for independent and public schools PreK–grade 12. . . With the diverse needs and requirements in today’s academic landscape, ERB takes a customized approach to our services.” Ms. Danyali says she is grateful that TNCS isn’t forced to implement standardized testing, “but students also need to know how to take a test—it’s important to have that exposure.”
Such testing, albeit less pressurized than it would be in a public school setting, will also prepare students for matriculation into secondary school and beyond.
TNCS Community: Internal and External
With the internal community covered in multiple ways throughout the discussion, Moderator Ms. Munro directed this portion to the broader community, focusing on partnerships with the city, community service, and even potential environmental hazards. In the latter category, chromium exposure from the piercing of the capped old Allied Chemical facility at Harbor Point during construction of the new Exelon building was specifically mentioned, and TNCS administration has been assured that Baltimore City has taken the appropriate steps to ensure the population’s safety. This is in contrast to how that situation was formerly managed, evidently. Councilman Jim Kraft has been with TNCS “every step of the way” to help, said Ms. Lawner.
As for community service, there’s usually something going on to help our city at TNCS. Please read TNCS Gives Thanks By Giving Back, Heifer International, and TNCS Holiday Outreach Programs for details.
Life after TNCS
Though we didn’t get the chance to address this one head on, a theme throughout the discussion emerged that could serve to answer questions about how well students will be prepared for the next steps (whatever those might be) in their academic careers and lives. With the attention to whole-child development, the carefully differentiated instruction, the administration policies that ensure that TNCS doesn’t exist in a vacuum but is part of the city and state educational corps, etc. all combine to guarantee not just preparedness but that the TNCS-educated student will thrive in his or her future environs.
Having run out of time, the Town Hall had to end before all questions were addressed. Important issues such as how and when to introduce sex education will have to wait until the next opportunity. In the meantime, keep these topical questions coming, parents!