Spaceship Club Elevates Aftercare at TNCS!

One of the perhaps unfortunate developments in modern society is that school lets out midafternoon, but the workday continues, making aftercare an essential service for many families. Isn’t it nice to know that at The New Century School, aftercare is just as enriching an experience as the rest of the schoolday?

Enter Emily Feinberg, Aftercare Coordinator, who strives to make sure that kids are engaged and happy and using the gap time between school and home in worthwhile ways by creating “clubs” that appeal to individual student predilections. Clubs range from music themed to math, drama, and world culture. Prior to the beginning of the 2013–2014 school year, Ms. Feinberg approached Aftercare Instructor Ron Shalom and asked him to suggest an idea for a club. That was no problem, says Mr. Shalom, who has spent lots of time with TNCS students and has developed a good feel for what appeals to them. He’s not particularly a fan of science fiction himself, but says that kids are forever asking him about all things Outer Space. And so, to give the people what they want, Spaceship Club was, er, launched!

Mr. Shalom is just the kind of well-rounded person TNCS likes to have around. The Maryland native joined TNCS staff on moving to Baltimore in March 2013. Prior to that, he studied linguistics and music at Oberlin College and Conservatory. In addition to teaching, Mr. Shalom is a talented composer and songwriter and plays the piano, double bass, and guitar. He also speaks Spanish and Hebrew. (Music, art, languages—a Renaissance Man, indeed!) Naturally, he brings a lot of his innate creativity to aftercare.

This spaceship workshop is a hive of activity on Mission Days.

This spaceship workshop is a hive of activity on Mission Days.

So, enough orbiting around the subject—what is Spaceship Club? “The premise behind the club,” says Mr. Shalom, “is that all of the students are aliens from Planet Ickydoo, and they’ve come to Planet Earth to explore.” Basically, Spaceship Club is an imaginative new world where kids create, pretend, and participate in a collective narrative. It’s really quite special. But it’s also one of those amazing organic things that you really have to witness to fully appreciate (see video below). A story underpins the hour-long club, and this story unfolds a new way each and every time the kids meet because they are spinning the narrative as they go.

The interactive story-telling aspect alone is quite inspiring to see, but it’s not the only way kids tap into their creativity in Spaceship Club. They also actually build spaceships! The skills they cultivate in the process are limitless—engineering, math, physics . . . even communication technology! Then there’s the astronomy and geography that also come into play. Wait—also anthropology, sociology, and zoology!

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s back up and start at the beginning (no, not the Big Bang, more like 4:00 on a Friday afternoon). Between 11 and 13 kids assemble in the day’s designated space (sometimes The Lingo Leap, sometimes outside, sometimes a classroom), and the space is instantly transformed into Planet Ickydoo, our Spaceship Club participants’ home and headquarters. The Ickydooians immediately commence repairs on or, if necessary, new construction of their spaceships to be ready for the day’s mission to Earth. The purpose of these missions is data collection. Ickydooians observe, take notes, and report back on earthly goings-on, such as climate, inhabitants (animal and human), topography, and vegetation. Endless subnarratives are possible during these missions, and the kids take full advantage! They adopt special names, for example, or discover Dr. Seussian fruits, or (humanely) trap and carry back snakes to headquarters for more intensive testing and observation.

Some days, work on the spaceship necessarily occupies most of the club. After the holidays, in fact, some crafts were in fairly bad shape. Mr. Shalom provides large cardboard boxes for the spaceships’ outer casing and an assortment of other found/recycled materials (tubes, smaller boxes of all shapes and sizes, twine, duct tape) to trick out each one. The kids team up and construct their spaceships according to their specializations. “The Snake Company,” for example, is an elaborate system of working parts piloted by two lower elementary students with a shared affinity for reptiles. Although the kids usually have the mechanics under control, Mr. Shalom patiently navigates the jumble of spare parts, assisting with more complex repairs and recommending alternative ways to approach problems. It’s obvious that he also relishes the kids’ curiosity and capacity for innovation, praising any particularly useful adaptations he sees them making. (Here and there, he may have to interject an admonishment or two to a particularly energetic Ickydooian, but his stated role is something akin to Air-Traffic Controller or Mission Control.)

With the ever-changing variety of source materials at their disposal, the students have branched out into making other implements that might come in handy on missions. You never know when you might need your suit of armor on Earth, for instance, and there’s no upper limit on the variety of transmitters and scanners that might serve. “When pointed at an unfamiliar object, the scanners can tell you everything you need to know about that object,” says Mr. Shalom. One key piece of equipment is the ansible, a sort of transponder “[they] made out of an old internet modem and a busted RCA cable,” says Mr. Shalom. Any Ursula K.Le Guin fans will know just what this “superluminal communication” device is.

About midway through the hour, the activity ramps up. Mr. Shalom announces the Liftoff schedule and keeps Ickydooians informed with a countdown so they’ll be sure to be “spaceworthy” in time. Liftoff is the high point of the club. Kids scramble into their boxes–oops, ships—and really get into the pretend play. Sounds, sights, and dialogue all enhance the performance as the Ickydooians hurtle toward Earth. Mr. Shalom talks them through each phase of breeching another planet’s successive “-spheres,” lending a little drama to the scene, and then reestablishes a line of communication with each Ickydoo Spacepod.

On landing, the little space travelers engage in the aforementioned scientific study of the strange, new planet and are continuously reminded by Mr. Shalom to remember to gather plenty of “space algae” for the necessary fuel to return to Ickydoo. All the while, they are garnering insight into other worlds, cultures, and beings and how to live in peace and harmony among them in our shared universe. And so we can add philanthropy to the growing list of important attributes that Spaceship Club cultivates. Working parents, rest easy. Aftercare kids are having an out-of this-world learning experience!

There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’d like to come and meet us
But he thinks he’d blow our minds
There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’s told us not to blow it
Cause he knows it’s all worthwhile
He told me:
Let the children lose it
Let the children use it
Let all the children boogie

—Ziggy Stardust

TNCS’s Garden Tuck Shop Program Relaunches!

This wee one enjoys her lunch of pizza, tabouleh, and corn.

This wee one enjoys her lunch of pizza, tabouleh, and corn.

Now in its third year,  The New Century School‘s Garden Tuck Shop Lunch Program has implemented some exciting new changes, a new lunch menu foremost among them. These modifications grew out of some parent and TNCS staff feedback that Chef Emma Novashinski used to enhance and refine her already popular program. Menus and newsletters will also be part of this relaunch to ensure that communication about her meals is precise and detailed. “This is exciting,” she says, “it’s a nice turning point that has renewed my vigor to figure out which direction to take the program in.” She calls her refreshed program “the cleanest kids’ lunch downtown”! By “clean,” she refers to the source of the foods she serves. The closer to you it originates, the cleaner (healthier) it is. Trickling Springs Creamery in Chambersburg, PA provides local milk, produce and eggs come from nearby Tuscarora Farms, and fresh local bread comes daily from Cunningham’s Bakery in Towson.

Pilot Program

In mid-November, Chef Emma began piloting a series of new lunches that assembled components most popular with former and existing program participants. Popularity was not the only prerequisite, however. Chef Emma’s primary target for this new lunch series was to include food items “high in both protein and lysine to have the full plate components that the kids need for lunch.” As before, the lunches are vegetarian. L-lysine is an essential amino acid that—although it is necessary for every protein in our bodies—our bodies don’t produce, so it must be ingested. Both protein and L-lysine are critical for proper growth. Chef Emma says, “Protein and lysine content are big concerns for parents faced with a vegetarian school lunch. . . I have developed 13 perfectly balanced meals, which are appealing to tiny taste buds.”

A typical lunch includes an organic dairy item or two, fruits, veggies, a home-baked item, and multi-grain  bread.

A typical lunch includes an organic dairy item or two, fruits, veggies, a home-baked item, and multi-grain bread.

She used November and December to nail down her menu to be able to hit the ground running when school started back up this month. “I just kept honing, and honing, and honing it until the kids were getting a product they like,” she said. Having previously juggled a range of about 30 meals, she started thinking, why not pick 2 weeks’ worth of food and keep repeating those meals? She wants TNCS students to really embrace the Garden Tuck Shop program in all its facets, from enjoying the food to understanding its importance for their health. By using a regularly rotating system of meals, she would limit the unfamiliarity aspect that turns some kids off to a new food. “They might respond better to something that’s a bit more consistent,” she says. “Simplicity is better; you can put as much protein into a meal as you want, if they don’t eat it, it doesn’t really matter how protein-packed it is.”

The MyPlate poster hangs on the cafeteria wall to remind students that eating a balanced meal is necessary for optimum functioning and health!

The MyPlate poster hangs on the cafeteria wall to remind students that eating a balanced meal is necessary for optimum functioning and health!

Transitioning

During this 2-month transition phase, Chef Emma also made “personal appearances” in the classrooms to talk to the kids about their lunches. “Once I went round to the classroom to discuss color, texture, and taste and well as vitamins and nutrients and what they do for your body, even kids who hadn’t previously been eating very much had at least tried everything on the plate, and overall the results were really quite amazing.” To support the educational component, she posted MyPlate information around the cafeteria. “I want the kids to be able to tell me where the dairy is coming from on the plate, where the grains are,” she says. MyPlate is a visual reminder to kids to balance their meal with healthful choices and is endorsed by First Lady and healthy school lunch advocate Michelle Obama.

Also during the transition phase, Chef Emma received a lot of parent questions about some of the newly appearing menu items, particularly with desserts. She said she suddenly realized that what she does in the kitchen hasn’t always been quite clear to parents. “I cook from scratch every single day. The ‘cookie’ is homemade; the sandwich is homemade with homemade bread.” Concerns arose that kids participating in the program would come to expect dessert every day or, worse, eat only the dessert item. Says Chef Emma, “If the kids were going to eat anything, it was going to be dessert, so if I could hide vegetables and seeds in those baked goods, the kids are still getting proper nutrition. However, I just want to reassure everybody that during the transition, when we were trying to see how far we could go with certain salads, breads, and other baked items, that whenever you saw a cookie, a cupcake, or a slice of cake, it was enriched with hemp, chia, flax, sunflower seeds, or poppy seeds, because I know that there were concerns about having desserts on the menu.”

Each  component of this dessert is homemade, nutritious, and thoughtful.

Each component of this dessert is homemade, nutritious, and thoughtful.

She has arrived at a happy medium, she reports. Program participants get their main dish (e.g., pizza, faux chicken nuggets, tomato soup with cheesy toasts, etc.), which is consistently accompanied by sides such as tabouleh, cous cous, warm bean salad, or Waldorf salad as well as the CSA supplementary vegetables and plenty of fresh fruit. “The homemade muffin or granola bar is there only to get more dried fruit and seeds into the kids—not as a treat per se,” says Chef Emma.

Another change is that she now serves lunch in a basket to avoid using so many disposables. “Also, clean-up isn’t so bad and lunch is a bit more fun.” It’s certainly appetizing! Another advantage is that the basket helps kids know what to expect, which is, again, part of Chef’s overall strategy. “When confronted with something they don’t all know, if we repeat it every 2 weeks the year round,” she says, “eventually they’ll grow to like it.”

The repetition is ideal for young kids, but it also presents challenges to the menu creator. “If the foods aren’t locally available because of seasonal changes, I’m going to have to supplement with conventional foods. But I also add in whatever local ingredients are available to balance.” That rolls into her greenhouse curriculum as well. “I want to get more students gardening and cooking.” So, they harvest what’s available and pickle and preserve what they can for these “leaner” months in addition to keeping season-appropriate vegetables and herbs growing all year to supplement the Garden Tuck Shop program. “The plants in the greenhouse are indigenous and perennial, allowing the children to witness the changing of the seasons and to become familiar with the plants they can grow in their temperature zone. We have a fig tree, an olive tree, three grape vines, an asparagus patch, a strawberry patch, a rhubarb patch, blackberry and raspberry brambles, and two blueberry bushes!” They also seasonally plant root veggies like carrots and sweet potatoes, and lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers in spring. Herbs include rosemary, mint, lavender, marjoram, oregano, sage, thyme, and bay laurel leaf. (Parents are welcome to the fresh herbs!)

Her next step was to calculate the exact nutrient content (proteins, carbs, lysine, etc. down to the smallest mineral) of each meal, based on portion size. “I want kids to understand that food is fuel and that’s why nature gives us the food that it does at the time of the year that it does. It’s so we can remain balanced and feel good.”

Flavoring oil is just one way Chef Emma makes use of herbs and flowers growing in the greenhouse.

Flavoring oil is just one way Chef Emma makes use of herbs and flowers growing in the greenhouse.

“Cleanest Kids’ Lunch Downtown!”

In early January, she held a seminar for teachers to educate them about each plate, and at a coming TNCS Information Night or Potluck she will also present to parents. “The last couple of years with this program have taught me that it’s all down to communication,” she said. “Success is really about communication, and I don’t want that to fall to the wayside going forward.” We’ll also be learning about how the greenhouse factors in. Classes have been drying herbs and flowers to make potpourris, flavored oils, and bouquets garni, and body scrubs and other products may also soon be available.

About program participants Chef Emma says, “They’ve been superstars putting up with all of this experimentation, and I think we’ve really gotten to a marketable product.” Typical lunches are faux (soy) nuggets, edamame and corn, organic Greek yogurt, fruit, and milk; spinach and cheese tortellini or ravioli, leafy salad, apricot and banana muffin, fruit, and milk; or bagel with soy nut butter and jelly, celery, raisins, organic Greek yogurt, and milk. See much of the rotating roster of 13 complete lunches, each with a minimum of 24 g protein and 1,925 mg lysine, below. Click Menu: January 2014 to download.

January's menu features most of the 13 available meals. Looks delicious!

January’s menu features most of the 13 available meals. Looks delicious!

Haven’t signed your child up yet? Click here to register for the Garden Tuck Shop program at TNCS!

Like Garden Tuck Shop’s Facebook page to receive updates and photos of Chef Emma’s beautiful, delicious, and healthful lunches!

Composting and collecting rainwater are next on the horizon, possibly this spring!

TNCS’s Inaugural Town Hall

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.

Growth

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.

TNCS Leadership

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.

Standardized Testing

“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.

TNCS Policies

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!

TNCS Elementary Information Night: A School Grows and Flourishes

The New Century School started off 2014 with a bang—on the very first Thursday of the new semester, TNCS held a 1-hour Elementary Information Night followed in a second hour by the first-ever Town Hall. This exciting and important double event was geared toward all current TNCS families regardless of student age and to prospective families interested in joining TNCS’s community. Acknowledging the 2-hour duration, a table of gorgeous appetizers was prepared by Chef Emma Novashinski to see us through, and light beverages were also served. To make attendance even easier, free parking was provided as well as free childcare. The lucky kids got Fell’s Point’s B.O.P. pizza and healthy snacks. This delightful evening, which TNCS administration plans to repeat annually, was a testament to the dedication and commitment of both the TNCS staff for organizing and executing it as well as the families who gladly attended in order to learn more about how TNCS was founded, the current state of the elementary program, and TNCS’s future. These joint efforts ensure that this special school will continue to flourish.

Chef Emma Novashinski provided an array of healthy but delicious hors d'oeuvres to tide over guests arriving just after work.

Chef Emma Novashinski provided an array of healthy but delicious hors d’oeuvres to tide over guests arriving just after work.

After an introduction to the evening by Admissions Director Robin Munro, Co-Executive Director Roberta Faux gave a heartfelt, enthusiastic, and at times funny speech about TNCS’s rather surprising origins as well as where its heading—“why we got started and how we got here,” as she put it. After attempting to eschew childcare for their daughter born in 2005 and care for her themselves with their “flexible work schedules,” Ms. Faux says that process wore her and her husband down pretty quickly (drawing quite a sympathetic collective chuckle from the audience). She met the other TNCS Co-Executive Director Jennifer Lawner soon thereafter, and together they decided to do something about the lack of stimulating preschool options in Baltimore. They especially identified with the work of education luminaries such as Dr. Maria Montessori and creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson. “In October of 2007, we opened Patterson Park Montessori with five students,” she recalled. That one-room preschool would very quickly prove too small, and TNCS came to be in its current incarnation at 724 S. Ann St. in Fell’s Point in 2010. The Co-Executive Directors felt that the Montessori method “really resonated” with their vision of what early childhood education should be. “Prepared spaces,” said Ms. Faux, set the stage for individual discovery. Within this “freedom within limits that fosters independence,” kids can explore, wonder, touch, and learn about their worlds. They are, moreover, empowered to do so.

Co-Executive Director Roberta Faux speaks fondly of discovering how naturally children learn with Montessori materials and how eye-opening and gratifying an experience that was for her.

Co-Executive Director Roberta Faux speaks fondly of discovering how naturally children learn with Montessori materials and how eye-opening and gratifying an experience that was for her.

This story becomes the more poignant when you consider that both Founders/Co-Executive Directors not only have children attending TNCS in the Elementary and Primary classes, but also that the programs were created very much for those children. And isn’t it very comforting to know that your kids are being taught, nurtured, and cared for every day by a staff hand-picked by these mothers of fellow students? As any new school—or any other kind of establishment for that matter—goes through certain growing pains, that process of becoming can be unsettling. Though TNCS is  still a new school and is still coming into itself, the knowledge that it was born out of the simple desire to provide actual, real children a place to truly thrive preempts any doubt about its integrity, its child-centered approach, and the rosy future it promises itself and its graduates.

After Ms. Faux spoke for about 15 minutes, Head of School Alicia Danyali next took the floor to give an overview of TNCS’s philosophy for elementary education. As the school matures alongside the student body, it’s more and more identifying itself as an elementary school rather than a preschool. A tremendous amount of thought, planning, and resources have gone into the creation of this special elementary program to continue fostering the school’s defining value—whole-child education. Unlike the pre-primary and primary programs, the elementary is not strictly Montessori by any means, which is entirely intentional. With the spirit of independent but guided inquiry very much intact, however, it is certainly “Montessori-inspired.” The commitment to small class sizes as well as the mixed ages within them, says Ms. Danyali, ensures that each student gets individualized instruction and that no one is pigeon-holed according to age but is rather met at his or her skill level. For Ms. Danyali, the emphasis on multilingualism is also a key component of TNCS’s elementary program and one that sets the school truly apart. Elementary students get 45 minutes in each Mandarin and Spanish instruction daily. No other area school can boast this degree of language concentration, even despite the multitude of benefits experts agree that learning other languages confers. (See Top 10 Benefits of Multilingualism.)

Another point Ms. Danyali drove home was that the elementary program is designed to teach kids to learn and be curious about the world around them rather than set up primarily to see them through a test. But she was likewise not about to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Though many curricula are criticized for “teaching to the test,” there is a value to testing when it’s done appropriately. Ms. Danyali wants to implement a test used in other language immersion schools that would give TNCS a yardstick on which to measure overall progress and to give students that practice . . . but not to guide or interfere with the school’s scholastic approach and especially not to assess a teacher’s performance, a criticism that has been leveled at standardized testing in recent news (see the article here). There are also elements of the new Common Core curriculum standards for public schools that she feels are on the right track and could be selectively implemented if appropriate.

And that’s just it. Being a small, independent school offers the freedom to stretch and explore and continue to find ways to really engage students in learning that many schools just cannot have. Another advantage is in the simply amazing educators such an educational model attracts. Speaking of whom, elementary teachers Alisha Roberts and Adriana DuPrau next spoke, each presenting a 10-minute overview of their specialties. Ms. Roberts handles Math and Science (read more here), while Ms. DuPrau teaches English Language Arts, and both teachers mix independent work with small groups. They also create synergies among their disciplines, such that reading and writing is always a component of the science classroom, and discussion and inquiry likewise a component of the reading lesson. Foreign Language Curriculum Director Xie Laoshi spoke last and painted a portrait of how and why teaching foreign language at TNCS is a unique affair. Xie Laoshi creates a dynamic classroom, emphasizing the importance of making the activities relevant for students rather than asking them to complete book lesson after dreary book lesson. In fact, she had the audience in stitches after recounting how she ordered a slew of the best acclaimed books and materials for her curriculum, only to judge them unsuitable and set about making her own from scratch!

An evident degree of preparation and planning went into this evening. Why? Because the elementary program is where it all coalesces—it’s where all of the students are headed and it will define the school in a way that the pre-primary and primary programs do not. Not that those programs aren’t important—they absolutely are! They set the stage for what comes next, and building that solid foundation is critical for development. But making the decision of where to send your child to elementary school carries a lot of additional weight insofar as that education is what will equip him or her for life. The choice to send your child to an environment where his or her whole self is nurtured, not just the academic part, is certainly a lucky choice to have. Again, TNCS is unparalleled in this regard. In addition to their math, science, language arts, and foreign language instruction, elementary students get art, music, and physical education twice weekly to stimulate all areas of development. They also get “Teacher’s Choice” time, which often targets the cultivation of those character qualities a conventional classroom probably lacks the resources for. For instance, Ms. Roberts’s class is learning to crochet, with the help of some parent volunteers, and the scarves they make will be given to Baltimore’s homeless community. Pitching in and helping out is a school-wide value that manifests continually, setting an example to kids to be active, responsible members of their communities (as Dr. Montessori would have utterly sanctioned).

Maria Tecla Artemesia Montessori (August 31, 1870 – May 6, 1952) created the child-centered approach to education that TNCS grounds itself in and grows from.

Maria Tecla Artemesia Montessori (August 31, 1870–May 6, 1952) created the child-centered approach to education that TNCS grounds itself in and grows from.

In one of her very first remarks of the evening, Ms. Faux perhaps best described TNCS’s elementary program trajectory, which has its roots in Montessori but also branches beyond into language immersion and other forms of progressive education and continues to grow. In mentioning that Dr. Montessori, who believed that revolutionizing education would ultimately give rise to a more peaceful society, had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize no less than five times, she paused and said, “She would have continued to evolve, just as we are doing.” It was quite a revelatory moment. Of course Dr. Montessori would be exploring new ways to engage children and  embracing new platforms on which to do so—her methodology was built around innovation. TNCS is currently approved to teach through Grade 5 and will continue to add a grade level annually through Grade 8, staying one or two steps ahead of the current “pioneer” elementary student body as well as continuing to find new ways to stimulate and engage them. In the Fall of 2014, a third elementary classroom will be added and a new teacher hired to accommodate that growing elementary student body.

Wait a sec, did you say Grade 8? That’s right. A Middle School comprising Grades 6-8 will open in the Fall of 2016, with new classrooms, new spaces, a science lab, etc. But you’ll have to check back for a follow-up post on what happened during the Town Hall meeting that followed the elementary discussion. Stay tuned!

New Year’s Resolutions TNCS Style

Keeping New Year’s resolutions is notoriously difficult. Some experts advise against making any at all due to the consequent self-loathing that can envelope us once we realize we have failed epically! A new study claims that only 8% of those who make New Year’s resolutions keep them, and those who don’t give up after just 1 week. On the flip side, however, “People who explicitly make resolutions are 10 times more likely to attain their goals than people who don’t explicitly make resolutions.” So do we or don’t we make resolutions?!

We absolutely should (we’re actually hardwired to) . . . but with two key differences. Part of the key is not putting so much emphasis on target dates. Without room to slip, fall, and pick yourself back up, a resolution becomes one of those all-or-nothing pipe dreams with a built-in escape hatch—“I just couldn’t do it. Maybe next year.” Failure and recovery is an inherent part of any worthwhile process, so be realistic about that and don’t let slip-ups completely derail you. “Fail better.” The other difference is in setting small, specific goals instead of grand, sweeping changes. Abstractions such as “lose weight” or “stop smoking” are doomed without a plan in place that provides incremental and achievable daily steps. Ultimately, those small steps will yield the desired result.

Thus, the list below comprises a manageable, realistic, yet worthy set of goals that are universally beneficial. Even better, methods to accomplish each individual goal are also given, taking all of the guesswork out of making 2014 a healthy, happy year!

1. Eat a healthier diet, full of fresh vegetables and fruit: Join One Straw Farm CSA (even if it isn’t a stated goal, you’ll likely drop some pounds in the bargain).

The available bounty ranges from onions, peppers, lettuces, chard, kale, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, etc. to herbs—rosemary, oregano, thyme, chives, cilantro, parsley, etc.—and fruit, such as raspberries, strawberries, watermelon, and gorgeous varieties of heirloom tomatoes. . . Starting in June and running through November, on a set day of the week, “shareholders” get 8 pieces of 3–6 items, primarily vegetables . . . for about $24 per week.

2. Read more: Spend 20 minutes reading with your kids before bedtime (as well as curl up with your own reading material before lights-out). The benefits are varied and far-reaching . . . and what better way to close out the day?

[A study shows] that math and reading ability at age 7 years are linked with socioeconomic status (SES) in adulthood. Interestingly, although math and reading ability was also significantly associated with intelligence scores, academic motivation, and education duration, the association with later SES was independent of the family’s SES during childhood. Moreover, the researchers were not expecting to find that specifically math and reading ability were more important than general intelligence in determining SES. In other words, what we’re born with and what we’re born into may not be as important as what we learn in second grade. [The] findings emphasize the importance of learned skills. What this boils down to is really good news for students—the return on improving these skills at all levels is huge, from remedial to the most gifted. “Math and reading are two of the most intervention-friendly topics,” [researchers] say. “Practice improves nearly all children.”

3. Hone math skills: Spend 15 minutes playing math games with the kids before bedtime (like the TNCS Facebook page for games you can play at home to dovetail with Ms. Roberts’s work in class). You may be surprised at how these simple exercises improve your own day-to-day efficiency and obviate that smartphone calculator!

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.

4. Get more sleep: Impose a consistent bedtime (for kids’ and parents’ improved overall health).

“Sleep is no less important than food, drink, or safety in the lives of children.” And yet, with our busy lives and comings and goings, we can inadvertently contribute to sleep deprivation in our kids. “With parents working long hours, schedules packed with school, after-school activities, and other lifestyle factors, naps are missed, bedtimes are pushed back, mornings start earlier and nights may be anything but peaceful. Missing naps or going to bed a little late may not seem like a big deal, but it is. It all adds up, with consequences that may last a lifetime.”

5. Be more altruistic: Donate to local and international charities through TNCS’s food, clothing, and dime drives.

Howsoever you decide to share your wealth, remember that you will actually derive personal benefit from your selflessness—a beautiful paradox! Being altruistic is a  recognized happiness inducer!

6. Be more environmentally conscious: Join Clean Currents (bonus—you’ll actually save money on your power bill).

The most obvious benefit to wind energy is its environmental friendliness. “Windustry” ameliorates climate change by not only providing a non-polluting source of energy but also by displacing the greenhouse gas emissions that have already polluted the atmosphere from conventional power. But there are other tremendous advantages, too. By reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, for instance, clean energy also makes us less vulnerable as a nation to the vagaries of the international oil market . . . and to the associated security risks. Moreover, ever-renewable wind is a cash cow for farmers. Wind farming almost effortlessly generates considerable income without taking up land needed for crops as well as creating jobs and boosting the economy.

7. Learn a foreign language: Practice Words of the Week with the kids, and read the monthly classroom newsletters. Words of the Week are posted each Monday on both The New Century School website (during active school semesters) and on TNCS’s Facebook page (with pronunciations). Stay tuned for a blog post this month dedicated to other ways you can learn Mandarin and Spanish along with your kids at home!

8. Get more exercise: Take a class at Sanctuary Bodyworks while the kids are downstairs at The Lingo Leap. People who exercise are not only in better physical shape, they are also more cognitively and emotionally fit.

Exercise dramatically enhances circulation to the brain and encourages synaptic growth, thereby priming the brain for improved function—providing the “spark,” in other words. Improvements in function include both mental health as well as cognitive ability.

9. Make mornings less stressful:  Sign up the kids for the Garden Tuck Shop lunch program. As if you don’t have enough to do in the mornings—why not let somebody else provide your child with a wholesome, nutrition-packed homemade hot lunch? Even better many ingredients come from TNCS’s on-premise greenhouse, and all others are locally sourced.

You grow in the same environment as your food, so you have a divine connection. Your children and your plants are growing under the same sun and being touched by the same wind, seeing the same clouds and the same moon. The plants growing in your environment have withstood those particular elements. They are perfectly engineered by nature to be exactly what you physically need, right now.

10. Volunteer!: Complete your volunteer hours. Another way to connect with your community is to give something back to it.

Volunteering at TNCS is not a burden; it’s a pleasure—no, an opportunity, a gift even. It’s a chance to be deeply involved in your children’s day-to-day school lives, to connect with them on their turf, and to see and experience what’s going on in their lives from their points of view, all while providing a service to the school. There’s nothing so reassuring in parenting than to get proof that your child is happy and flourishing even when you aren’t there.

So go ahead—pick one (or several) and reap the fruits of your labor. Just don’t get discouraged by bumps in the road. We’ve got all year!