On Tuesday, March 10th, The New Century School held its 2015 Town Hall meeting for an auditorium full of eager participants. Admissions Director and Town Hall Moderator Robin Munro said, “We are a young and very ambitious school, so yearly meetings like this are critical. We will provide an annual state of the school update, specifically the K–8th program, and a forum for families to ask questions.” Childcare with dinner and wine and hors’ d’oeuvres were offered, and questions were solicited ahead of time to allow the event speakers to shape the discussion accordingly.
There was an evident unifying thread to this event: collaboration. Mrs. Munro remarked by way of introduction that “the map hasn’t been written to exactly where the school’s destination is and what the steps are along the way.” The implication is clearly that TNCS community input is not only valued and taken seriously but is also helping navigate to the destination. We are writing this map together.
Some notable differences from last year’s Town Hall bear pointing out. The biggest is the growth and maturation that the past year has afforded TNCS. Now in its 5th year, TNCS has emerged from the growing-pains phase faced by any new school as a secure, comfortable-in-its-own skin swan. It is owning its unique identity, and that feels good. Another key difference was in the nature of the interaction between the audience of parents and the event speakers (school administrators and executive directors). Parents were encouraged to share any concerns, but criticism was given in an overwhelmingly constructive way. Parents explained their problems but helpfully offered potential solutions to these problems in the same breath. The result was a very positive and productive evening. It felt like we were all in this together, collaborating to help keep the school flourishing and moving forward. Oh, right—that is the essence of the TNCS community!
In Public Health, the concept of “patient activation” measures an individual’s capacity to manage his or her own health and health care. Does she eat right and get plenty of sleep to maintain health? If he falls ill, does he have the skills to communicate effectively with a physician and to follow doctor’s orders? A correlation can be drawn in the education domain: “parent activation.” The Town Hall audience of parents was highly activated. They participate competently in the education their children are receiving at TNCS, they are knowledgeable about every aspect of their child’s school day, they purposefully sought out the school that best aligned with their own values. Their kids are so much the better off for it. This is not a way to say that TNCS students are simply academically superior. Although that is often the case, academic performance is not the key measure of “success” at TNCS; it’s so much more.
Co-Founder and Executive Director Roberta Faux calls the TNCS community “like-minded,” and she expressed our shared vision beautifully in a couple of personal vignettes. She retold the story of the school’s origins (much of the audience had not heard it last year) and how quickly the 1-room Patterson Park Montessori grew into TNCS today. Then she described a lovely interaction she recently had with one of her daughters, in which her daughter asked her what gifts would she (mom) prefer had been bestowed on her daughter as a baby by a fairy godmother, a là Princess Aurora in the story of Sleeping Beauty. First of all, what an insightful and touching question from such a young child. Both this question and the answer Mrs. Faux ultimately gave exemplify what TNCS is, how it works, and why it is such a phenomenal school. “I took a step back,” she said, “and I asked myself, “as parents and educators, what do we want for our kids?” In the meantime, of course, she had answered her daughter by telling her that she likes the gifts that her daughter already exhibits, such as her kind spirit and enumerating her many other attributes.
“It’s not just about achievement,” she continued. “It’s about being able to find our own happiness, overcome stress, engage in healthy give-and-take human relationships. These are the real-life training skills that we hope our children grow up learning and take with them.” She explained that in the United States, “giftedness” and high IQ are perhaps overvalued. “All children are capable of great things,” she said. But what’s wrong with working hard to achieve goals rather than being able to effortlessly master something? “Grit” is what will allow a person to attain mastery of something otherwise outside of his or her given wheelhouse. At TNCS, students are encouraged to try new things, to explore and to inquire their way into making self-guided discoveries. This takes perseverance, and this stick-to-itiveness will be a resource they can draw on in any circumstance for life. (Please see below for links to the TED talk she mentioned as well as Immersed‘s own handling of this topic.) “Education should not be just about achievement,” concluded Mrs. Faux. “It’s about cultivating the strength to work hard enough to find what you love. For my kids and for the kids here, if they can find that, then we’ve given them so much.”
Co-Founder and Executive Director Jennifer Lawner spoke next to express appreciation of and gratitude for TNCS staff and families, second the ideas expressed by Mrs. Faux, and to share a charming anecdote of her own: “Thinking back to 2007, I remembered how Roberta and I would sit on the sofa in her sunroom and discuss the crazy idea of opening a preschool. Finally, I knew I had to make a decision, so I said, ‘I’ll only do it if we can do language immersion,” and without any hesitation whatsoever she said, ‘well, okay’.”
Based on the topics submitted by attendees, Ms. Munro organized the overall discussion into nine umbrella categories: Space, Curriculum, Staffing, Standardized Testing, Accreditations, Parent–Administration Organization, Scholarship Fund, Short-Term and Long-Term Plans, and Open Q&A. Although not every topic got exhaustive coverage and not necessarily in this order, the following synopsis provides a comprehensive overview of the school and its future direction.
Space: Indoor and Outdoor
The Middle School opens in fall of 2016 and will most likely be housed in the existing Union Box space of Building North. The Co-Founders are in talks with architects and engineers to develop it as a multi-classroom space, which, if all goes planned, will be secured by August. Fall 2015 will see a mixed-age grade 4/5 classroom, mixed-age grade 2/3 classroom, and either two mixed-age K/1st classrooms or a straight K class plus one mixed-age K/1st class.
Last year’s playground redesign experienced some environmental setbacks but is still going to happen in order to create a space that can work for preschool, elementary, and future middle school students. A new geo dome will be erected, and the greenhouse will be moved. Other aspects are less certain, but ideas for improvement flew about the room. Also, Head of School Alicia Danyali just announced that Friday that TNCS mom Tracey Browning has organized another High Five fundraiser at Camden Yards. Funds will go to the playground overhaul.
Staffing and Curriculum
Mrs. Danyali fielded these topics and was visibly thrilled to announce that she will be joined by an Assistant Head of School in August. This will free up much of her time to focus on exploring 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.
Regarding the curriculum, questions here were very specific. Being fans already of the school day scholastic content, parents wanted to know if there will be additional after-school enrichment, sports, and musical instrument instruction. The administration heard them loud and clear—this was perhaps the primary issue of the evening. Proposed solutions will probably involve community partnerships, and this is a good thing on many levels. TNCS is committed to being a responsible and active member of the external community; partaking of community offerings is one way to honor this commitment. Discussions were already underway to expand the relationship with Coppermine Fieldhouse at DuBurns Arena, so giving more opportunities for team sports instruction and participation is a likely outgrowth. The Patterson Park pool could be used for swimming lessons, and the ice skating rink could also be used in an athletic program. Musical instrument instruction will have to be given some more thought, but some creative workarounds thrown out included inquiring about the services of Laura Norris, Director of the Baltimore Chapter of Mando for Kids, a free program that teaches Baltimore City kids ages 6 and up to play the mandolin. Mrs. Norris just happens to live down the block from TNCS and is a frequent guest performer. This video clip features all age groups she currently teaches. Developing a special offshoot for TNCS students is a distinct possibility.
“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. Regardless, 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.
Parents were very vocal about their willingness to help tackle existing obstacles to progress. A suggestion was made was to formalize a PTA-esque parent committee, and another to create an oversight committee to help tie individual committee threads together to more effectively communicate school changes and news. “We are open,” said Mrs. Munro. “If what you want is a formal quarterly meeting, we’ll make that happen.” Thus, again the collaborative nature of this group was felt.
Short- and Long-Term Plans and Q&A
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.
The Q&A gave TNCS administrators a clear idea of what parents feel could be done better. These issues were addressed with seriousness and respect and are of immense value to the moving the school forward. Many parents took this opportunity to praise the school and administrators for the zillion things they get right on a daily basis.
Finally . . .
For more information on Professor Angela Duckworth and grit, please visit the following links:
See you next year, TNCS community! In the meantime, keep that valuable and much-appreciated feedback coming!