TNCS Welcomes DBFA and the “Big Kids”!

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For the second year in a row, TNCS hosted this DBFA event, providing plenty of space in the gymnasium.

On Wednesday, January 28th, The New Century School once again had the pleasure of hosting the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance‘s annual signature event, “Meet the Big Kids (and Their Parents).” This event featured participants from neighborhoods all over the city (e.g., Fell’s Point, Butcher’s Hill, Otterbein, Roland Park, Federal Hill, etc.) to provide the inside scoop on the challenges and benefits of growing up and going to school in our urban environment. TNCS was perfectly situated to host again, with plans to open its very own middle school in the fall of 2016 and welcome some big kids of its own!

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Hors d’oeuvres from Lebanese Taverna gave attendees time to arrive at a leisurely pace, mingle, and recharge before getting down to business.

The event, designed to accommodate working parents, commenced with a happy hour with hors d’oeuvres from Harbor East’s Lebanese Taverna, while children were given pizza and snacks in an adjoining classroom with childcare by Wondersitters. The audience turnout was high—how to raise healthy, happy older children in downtown Baltimore is a popular topic! DBFA solicited questions for the panel in advance to make sure everyone’s concerns were addressed in a timely fashion. Said mediator Beth Laverick, “[This event] is 150% worth your time, and you will walk away with more information than you thought possible.”

This year, the event took a slightly different tack, focusing more on the kids themselves and letting them express their opinions in their own voices. One especially nice touch was in the variety of perspectives that the panel shared. In addition to middle school–age and high school–age kids, parents were also on hand to provide their viewpoints. Thirdly, the panel included two young working professionals who had grown up in Baltimore, gone to college, launched successful careers, and returned to Baltimore to live and work. The resounding message was that staying in Baltimore to raise a family is not only fine, but it has many advantages—big advantages—that the panel was happy to enumerate.

So how do they do it? How do downtown families manage “without yards, two-car garages, and shopping malls”?

DBFA Executive Director John Bullock introduced the event by explaining DBFA’s mission to keep Baltimore families connected and to provide the resources they need to enhance family life in Charm City. Mediator Mrs. Laverick then took over to introduce the panelists. Each was asked to describe where he or she lives and what it is about Baltimore that has him or her committed to city living. Walkability was a key theme as was the sense of community pervading the neighborhoods. Many consider Baltimore a “small, close-knit community within a big city.” In other words, you get the best of both worlds here. All of your neighbors know you and keep an eye out for your family as in a small town, while first-rate theatre, dining, farmers’ markets, and shopping are abundantly available—big-city perks. “There’s never a dull moment,” said Big Kid Sebastian Towles, which got a laugh from the audience. We could all agree with that statement!

Discussion Topics

Not surprisingly, schools were the biggest issue, just as they were last year. In some ways, this issue is fast becoming a non-issue. Almost soon as the Big Kids opened their mouths, audience members’ concerns about Baltimore City high schools were quelled. The panelists were smart, witty, eloquent, and extremely self-possessed. They were perfectly at ease speaking from the stage to a large audience, all of which says a lot about the education (a mix of public and private schools) they are receiving. “Do you have concerns that the education your child is getting is not on a par with national standards? parents were asked. “Not even a little bit,” said one, which was echoed unanimously. If anything, it’s the opposite. Fun fact: students graduating from Baltimore City public high schools get free tuition to Johns Hopkins University upon acceptance! (See below for a list of the top-performing Baltimore City high schools. Also note that Baltimore is nationally renowned for its private high schools (e.g., Gilman, Calvert Hall). “Where did you go to school?” when asked of a Baltimore native, does not refer to college, but to high school.

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This year’s panel included the kids, their parents, and a couple of “former kids”!

What about school safety? What about transportation to school? In Baltimore City, no high schools are zoned, so all are by choice. Prospective enrollees apply to their top picks and make the decision based on where they are accepted. This system is really wonderful for matching a Big Kid to the right learning environment (some schools focus on The Arts, others on STEM, for example). It also presents a couple of challenges, such as getting to a school that isn’t located in the immediate vicinity. Are parents forced to spend hours each morning chauffering their kids to school and making all manner of sacrifices for this inconvenience? Panelists laughed off the very idea. Part of urban living is developing the competence and independence to navigate the city. Most of the school-aged panelists take the MTA busses and are happy to do so. Carpools can also be arranged in certain instances, but to hear the kids themselves, availing themselves of the public transportation at hand clearly makes the most sense. Busses on the school routes are full of students, and it’s easy to develop “bus buddies” should a helping hand or just some companionship ever be needed.

As for safety in the school, this was again a moment during which the panelists impressed the audience. It’s true that cell phones and valuable items get stolen in Baltimore (as anywhere, city or no). These kids seemed almost puzzled by the idea that they wouldn’t use common sense en route to school or anywhere else. Don’t display valuable items; travel in groups. Duh ;)! As for larger safety issues such as bodily harm or worse, look at the statistics, said one of the grown-up “kids.” Violence in schools not only happens everywhere, but actually seems to be more prevalent in non-urban areas. This fact seems difficult to fathom until you consider that with a greater population density comes correspondingly more infrastructure to maintain order, such as police presence (and number of streetlights, pointed out Amuse Toys owner Claudia Towles, winning another audience laugh). The grown-up kids were quick to point out the harrowing experiences they met with after leaving Baltimore for college in small towns. The kids are right: It’s all down to using common sense, and urban parents might be more likely to begin instilling these lessons early, resulting in some pretty savvy young urban dwellers.

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More than 40 parents turned out to Meet the Big Kids (and Their Parents) to learn about the next phase of parenting and schooling in Baltimore.

From this point, a unifying motif emerged during all topics. City kids are resourceful. They are creative, innovative, and welcoming of a challenge. No yard to play outside in? Text your buddies to meet up at the neighborhood park or initiate a ball game in a very-low-trafficked alley. “Learn your community like the back of your hand,” they advised. Walk around; get to know the city. Parents agreed. Grant independence in increments, said Fell’s Point mom Melanie Hood Wilson. Teach them their boundaries and to be mindful of their surroundings.

As happened throughout the night, what was presented in question form as something to be overcome turned out to be a clear advantage in panelist answers. For example, no backyard (or one made of bricks—another laugh) opens up the city as a playground with a wealth to do and explore. Mrs. Wilson shared an anecdote that when her teenage daughter had just finished a grueling morning of exams and had an afternoon available to do with whatever she chose, she and her friends opted for a visit to the art museum. And, Baltimore’s walkability and abundant public transportation means that our teenagers aren’t driving as much, which parents and grown-up kids say translate into fewer accidents and fewer DUIs compared to teens in the suburbs who tend to have to drive almost everywhere.

Although the view was overall pretty rosy, it isn’t perfect. But Baltimore families and stakeholders are working on establishing more high schools, especially charter schools, to increase the number of excellent options. The DaVinci Academy for the Arts and Sciences (working name) is in development in Southeast Baltimore, for example, with hopes to open in fall 2017. “Baltimore has a way to go,” said Mrs. Wilson, “to develop the same diversity of options for high school that we have for elementary. And that’s only going to happen if families stay in the city and demand it.” Another way you can make your voice heard on the topic of schools in Baltimore is by visiting the Baltimore City Public Schools website, which actively solicits feedback. This organization also conducts annual School Effectiveness Reviews (SERs) that are published on the site for your perusal.

Finally, if you would like a deeper dive into the most frequently asked questions and their answers, please see Immersed‘s write-up of 2014’s event, which dealt with many of the same topics: Meet The Big Kids.

So What’s Bugging You?

This map shows the resurgence of measles, mumps, rubella, polio, and whooping cough caused by the anti-vaccination movement. Red triangles indicate health care workers who have been affected by the outbreaks.

This map shows the global resurgence of measles, mumps, rubella, polio, and whooping cough caused by the anti-vaccination movement. Red triangles indicate health care workers who have been affected by the outbreaks.

Viruses, viruses, viruses—they’re everywhere! Whether the kids are coming home from school* with fevers, or coworkers are too busy with workloads to keep their upper respiratory infections out of the office, or we’re barraged with the latest news stories everywhere we go, nasty bugs seem to be the order of the day. Just as new cases of Ebola had begun to rapidly decline in even the worst hit countries (whew!), suddenly, a measles outbreak in California this month has reminded us once again that bugs can be real threats. Measles is one of the most highly infectious diseases there is, and it can be deadly. This year is setting up to be the worst year for measles in the United States since 1994. Read more here: The New Measles.

But wait! There’s good news abloom in the microscopic world. In fact, there’s a lot of good news. The truth is, we are more hosts to more microorganisms—yeasts, bacteria, viruses, etc.—than to our own human cells. We have thrived on this symbiosis, and we’d do well to get to know our teeny tiny friends, frenemies, and outright enemies a little better. So, go on, do yourself a favor and watch this charming representation of our microbiome. It keeps us healthy and happy.

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That animation tells the story of the good guys, but what of the pathogens that wreak havoc on us? There’s good news on that front, too! Because, guess what? The 5-second rule has been reinstated! It turns out that food dropped on the floor can still be relatively safe for consumption, depending on length of time it spends there and on its own physical properties (e.g., moisture content, consistency, etc.). Or perhaps a better way to say it is, floor food might pick up fewer pathogens in under 5 seconds than it would take to make someone really sick. Read the dirt here: UK Study Shows Five Second Rule Exists. And note that this rule certainly can’t apply to highly trafficked public places. Ewwwww!

Kinda grossed out? Well maybe this story is more to your liking. A new study just published today in Science Daily has found the key to decipher the complex language of the linemen of our immune systems, the T and B lymphocytes, which are our first lines of defense against potentially harmful pathogens like many viruses and even tumors.

Combining methods of Next Generation Sequencing with in vitro stimulation and analysis of specific T cells, the researchers were able for the first time to establish a complete catalogue of the immune response to pathogens and vaccines. In particular, they have catalogued all the clones that respond to a particular microorganism, determining their specificity and their functional properties, for example their ability to produce inflammatory mediators (cytokines) or to migrate to different tissues.

It’s like having the opposing team’s exhaustive playbook—we could potentially have an answering play ready for every viral/bacterial/neoplastic offensive move. The therapeutic possibilities are dizzying. Read more here: The language of T lymphocytes deciphered, the “Rosetta Stone” of the immune system.

For now, though, the little guys are proving more effective at survival than we are, so they deserve some respect. We should above all strive to keep the good ones happy, which ironically, may help stave off the not-so-good ones. Eating right, getting plenty of sleep, and exercising are just what the doctor ordered.

*Note that The New Century School‘s policy mandates that students with infectious illnesses be kept out of school until the danger of contagion has passed (at least 24 hours without symptoms). Please consult the Parent Handbook for more details regarding TNCS’s communicable disease policy.

Phys Ed Is Going Strong at TNCS!

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Phys ed teacher Robert Bekas joined TNCS at the start of the 2014–2015 academic school year.

The New Century School was founded on the principle of educating the whole child, which many schools have neither the luxury nor the capacity to do. Art, Music, and Physical Education are typically first on the chopping block in the current standardized education environment. But, in keeping with its firm commitment to providing a well-rounded scholastic experience, TNCS has not only retained these disciplines critical for development of creativity as well as specific skills, but it has continued to grow its “specials” program and offers a very balanced ratio of academic-to-specials classes.

One emphasis of the 2014–2015 school year is on movement, explained Head of School Alicia Danyali in the fall. True to her word, she has implemented regular yoga throughout the upper programs, encourages teachers to allow plenty of time for their students to move within their individual classrooms—such as K/1st teacher Mrs. Jacoby’s games to hone hand–eye coordination (see TNCS Gets the Wiggles Out and the Learning In!)—in addition to providing dedicated gym time in a formal physical education class. Movement is not only essential for physical health, but evidence in support of movement being just as vital for cognitive health is mounting fast.

Enter Mr. Robert Bekas, TNCS’s new phys ed instructor. Mr. Bekas is The Real Deal in terms of what he brings to the gym. Born and raised in Poland, he graduated with a Master’s Degree in Physical Education from the Academy of Physical Education. His main interest was in martial arts, and he competed for many years in karate, specifically, the Shotokan style. After graduating from college, he opened his own kickboxing academy and taught there for 4 years. In 2004, he came to the United States to do an internship at Sport FIT, a fitness club. (He met his future wife there and has been here ever since apart from brief annual trips back home.) He then worked for 7 years at a Wheaton Catholic school, but when it closed, he came here to teach K and up.

His classes start with basic stretching, then advance to an activity that incorporates some cardio (e.g., playing “Freeze,” “Sharks and Minnows,” or “Lions and Tigers”), and wrap up with skill-building in strength training, gymnastics, or team sports. He is hoping to increase classes from once a week to twice a week so the students are more accustomed to the routine. In Poland, he explained, PE class is usually four times a week. “Elsewhere, it seems to be getting less and less. This is bad for kids; they are spending too much time indoors and on devices and will end up with postural problems. I know this is the 21st century, but playing too many video games is a bad habit.” For his own fitness routine, he does a whole-body workout at the gym incorporating stretching, strength training, and cardio. For fun, he continues his martial arts training and also enjoys hiking.

As for his TNCS students he says, “The kids are doing great. The goal is overall fitness, but I also want them to learn the basic rules of baseball, football, soccer as well as fairplay. I also try incorporate team spirit. When we play, we play for fun. We don’t keep score; I want the students to be nice to each other, not get in arguments over who is winning. I try to keep it on the fun level, not necessarily the sports level.” He also uses the Gerstung equipment to teach basic gymnastics, such as forward and backward roll on the balance beam.

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Mr. Bekas commands respect from his students, and they adore him. “I like being at this school,” he said. “It’s a great place. It’s family oriented, and the classes are kept small.” By the way, Mr. Bekas also speaks four languages (Polish, English, German, and Russian) and might attempt to learn Japanese to support his martial arts endeavors. He is certainly a good fit for the multilingual/multicultural environment at TNCS! Future projects at the school for Mr. Bekas might include some extracurricular martial arts instruction; stay tuned for developments!

Meet the Teacher: Montessori-Trained Maria Mosby Joins TNCS

It's clear from her beautiful smile that this is one caring educator!

It’s clear from her beautiful smile that this is one caring educator!

The Montessori environment has “felt like home” to Maria Mosby for quite some time, she says, so she was a natural fit for Lead Teacher in one of The New Century School‘s four Primary Montessori classrooms. In fact, she began her own education at age 2 1/2 years at Columbia Montessori School, in Columbia, MD. “I grew up in Montessori,” she says, “so it has always been in my heart.”

After several moves with her family throughout New England and the Washington, D.C. area, which entailed a stint in public school, she rediscovered Montessori while studying Early Childhood Education at Towson University, and it has been Montessori all the way ever since. She had considered studying psychology, but says, “I’ve always had an affinity for children and wanted to be around them in my career. As a teacher, you do end up being a psychologist of sorts.” She knew that the primary age group was her target age group all along. “I worked with older children, elementary-age children, toddlers . . . but the 3 to 6 age group is really where my heart is.”

Even though she just joined TNCS full time this academic year, Ms. Mosby was no stranger to the school. As a primary assistant for 3 years and a toddler assistant for 5 years at Greenspring Montessori School (formerly, The Montessori School), she decided to take Early Childhood training through the Maryland Center for Montessori Studies. During her internship, she worked at TNCS’s summer camp and “loved the warm, peaceful community.” Even with a whole year-long absence, students remembered her and were excited to have her back.

Having been through the first semester and ironed out those wrinkles that inevitably come with introducing young children to new routines and new faces, she reports that “things are going very well. I love my students with their unique personalities, and I’m glad that there’s a 3-year cycle to look forward to with them. It has really been a growing experience for me.” She also attributes some of the successful transition-making to her Assistant Teacher Elizabeth Salas, who also joined TNCS this academic year. Señora Salas came to TNCS from Chile and besides being “wonderful,” in Ms. Mosby’s words, provides the Spanish immersion component to the classroom. Ms. Mosby herself is picking up some Spanish, although not as quickly as the students, she confessed.

Being such a staunch proponent of Montessori education, Ms. Mosby has a lot of insight from several perspectives into what makes it so effective. “The children are given the opportunity to reach their potential,” she said. “They’re not stifled. When I compare [Montessori education] to traditional education, I remember how I struggled with math, especially when my family was moving around. I needed help with fractions, but the class I entered had already studied them and were not going to backtrack just for me. And that’s not an issue here. Everyone is working at their own pace.”

Once a shy student, she also credits the independence that Montessori confers as part of its success. She sees daily in her classroom younger and older children working together, which often means a younger child absorbing a lesson he or she might be considered too young for in a conventional learning environment. “I don’t hinder them,” she says. “I let them see what they can do and also let them learn from their mistakes, which fosters that sense of independence that I love about Montessori.” It’s easy to see how this process builds confidence in children and primes them to learn.

Although she is incredibly well versed with all of them, her favorite Montessori materials are those associated with Practical Life. “They make a really nice school–home connection,” she said. Kids can play at cooking, flower arranging, tidying up, etc., and as they perfect these skills, they translate them to home and develop motor skills and a sense of responsibility to the immediate environment in the bargain.

“Another thing they have been working on is how to use the ‘peace table’ if upset and words to use when solving a conflict with others. They really enjoy the sensory items at the peace table, and it’s a good place to go when someone needs a place to chill out.” Just like the other Maria M., Ms. Mosby values treating others with kindness and receiving the same in return.

One very special project they have been working on as a group is writing to another Montessori class in Saskatoon, Canada. “The children have been very excited about it and have been drawing pictures to include. They have been learning about Canada’s cities and will also be learning a few French words,” she said.

In her free time, Maria enjoys running and does the Casey Cares Foundation 5K every year, which raises money for critically ill children in Baltimore and surrounding areas so that they can have things like birthday presents, vacations, and pajamas for long hospital stays. “I also work with Girls on the Run of Central Maryland as a “SoleMate.” “GOTR coaches pre-teen and middle school–aged girls to run their first 5K. It is a great organization that increases the girls’ self-esteem, overall health, and sense of sisterhood,” she says. She is also a certified children’s yoga instructor and will complete her 200-hour yoga training this year.

In closing, she said, “After I was away for a year, coming back [to TNCS] just felt like coming home. Everyone is so welcoming, and I feel very supported from the other teachers and from the administration. We all have something to offer. We collaborate and work together very well, even among the different divisions.” TNCS is thrilled to have the warm, compassionate Ms. Mosby in her very first Lead Montessori Teacher role!

Standardized Testing Debate Continues

A few weeks ago, The Washington Post published “Your children deserve better than this, first-grade teachers tell parents,” an article that tells the stories of two teachers who are publicly refusing to administer standardized tests they believe harmful to their students. One of The New Century School‘s core values is to never “teach to the test,” and the article fuels commitment to this tenet. Although the article affirms beliefs already held by the TNCS community, what is unique is not the teachers’ condemnation of standardized testing, it’s their brave refusal to administer them in their classrooms, come what may.

In a letter to their students’ parents, which was subsequently published on the website United Opt Out National (“a grassroots organization advocating for the rights of parents to opt their children out of standardized tests and against the privatization of public education”), highly credentialed and greatly esteemed teachers Karen Hendren and Nikki Jones break down the reasons behind their mutiny. At the center of their argument is lost learning time:

In our classrooms the children spend, on average, 1,510 minutes (25 hours) completing assessments. 720 minutes of those assessments are one-on-one. That means that we are tied up assessing students for at least 17, 280 minutes a school year. Your children are losing 288 hours of time with their teacher because of mandated testing. When you break down our days and count for specials, lunch, and recess, we end up with about 4 hours of instruction time. So, 288 instructional hours, or 72 days… yes, 72 days of our school year we, as teachers, are tied up assessing students with the mandated assessments. Why are our schools failing? Why are children not learning how to read? We think the numbers above answer those questions.

And this is just in first grade! The problem, they explain, is that so much standardized testing is considered “high-stakes testing,” which is generally used to determine accountability, with merit or penalties awarded accordingly. High-scoring schools get government funding; low-scoring schools do not, with repercussions for students and staff alike. It’s really no wonder that the specter of teaching to the test arose in such a culture. Teachers and administrators are arguably just trying to keep the school doors open.

But Hendren and Jones are seeing the effects on children of leaching away the creativity and autonomy from the classroom and declining to participate: “This is about what is in the best interest of the child. When education steps away from the child, all purpose is lost.” They do, however, fully understand the value of assessment. Without assessment, the individual student cannot be given the tailored instruction he or she may need. That’s another nuance—a classroom does not comprise one homogenous set of children all learning the same things at the same rate by the same learning vehicle, so why should they be expected to demonstrate what they have learned in a standardized fashion?

“[Children] deserve more time in a rich learning environment, interacting with others, and growing deeper across academic and developmental domains,” said Hendren and Jones, and this is certainly a model for education that TNCS valiantly upholds. That’s not to say that TNCS won’t ever implement some form of testing, but because TNCS is proudly independent, “high stakes” will never coerce TNCS into sacrificing its core values to artificially inflate scores or, worse, to lose sight of the mission to inspire in students a lifelong desire to learn.

Says Head of School Alicia Danyali, “We are not forced to mandate standardized testing, but it would be good to know that we are more or less in line with other independent schools. Students also need to know how to take tests, and probably need the exposure.” She also explained that they’ll need some kind of picture of their early academic journey for secondary education and beyond. If Mrs. Danyali and her administration as well as the school Co-Founders deem it beneficial, a test may be implemented in future. To date, they are exploring what the Educational Records Bureau (ERB) has to offer independent schools and are making sure they find just the right fit for TNCS.

See Standardized Testing: It’s Time To Talk about It for more on TNCS’s views on this important topic.