TNCS Head of School Wraps up the 2018–2019 School Year!

Shara Khon Duncan has been Head of School at The New Century School for a full year.  Immersed had another sit-down with her for a nostalgic look back at her first year, what goals she set and accomplished, what went well, what she’s continuing to address, and what she’ll tackle next.

Immediately, Sra. Duncan expressed her pleasure and gratitude for what she called a great year.

It’s really great—I love it. Friends, family, and former colleagues will say things like, ‘you don’t look tired enough,’ or ‘you’re still smiling; how is that possible?’, and it’s because I love what I do. It’s not a job. I love coming to this place everyday, where I have such wonderful people to work with as well as wonderful students and families. I tell people that this is one of the most diverse environments that I’ve been in. It’s a blessing to be here.

Diversity and languages are, indeed, important to Sra. Duncan, who was a Diversity Coordinator at one of her former schools. She is amazed that TNCS doesn’t even need one—it organically attracts a culturally diverse population and is inherently inclusive and respectful of the community’s various needs. And the languages really elevate the school for her; in fact, that’s what originally drew her to TNCS (see TNCS Welcomes Shara Khon Duncan as Head of School for her rich history with languages). She gets to use her adopted language Spanish daily, and she is even picking up some Mandarin, thanks to the perseverance of Li Laoshi. Sra. Duncan joked that, so far, she can tell you whether it’s raining or not. “In all seriousness, though, it’s just wonderful to hear the students speaking in Spanish and Mandarin,” said Sra. Duncan. It amazes me to hear kindergarten students who just started in the fall and spoke only English singing in both languages at the spring concert and sounding like they’ve been doing it all their lives. It gives me chills.”

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Goals Accomplished

The year went really fast in a lot of ways, and in a lot of ways I feel like I’ve been here a long time,” said Sra. Duncan. “It presented some challenges in the sense that there was a lot of work to do just putting systems into place, trying to make it so that we can run more efficiently in the background, which was one of my goals.” She explained that in order to be as visible and out and about on campus as she’d like to be, she needed to first work behind the scenes to establish a framework.

One such system is a new student management system, which the TNCS community will learn about in the coming weeks and will launch for the 2019–2020 school year. It’s called Blackbaud, and it will provide a much more efficient platform for communication—think school delay and closing announcements—as well as much, much more. Staff will be able to readily send out notifications, and teachers will have individual web pages that parents can access to find out what’s going on in the classroom rather than receiving such information from a sometimes unwieldy email platform. Resource boards will also be available to house other kinds of information so parents don’t have to go spelunking through their inboxes to find out, for example, what is the requested dress for an upcoming student performance. It’s right there in one easy-to-access place.

“That process of vetting various systems to see which one would work best for us took a good deal of my time,” said Sra. Duncan, “but we established teams, and I talked to other schools. Things like that take time; you want to do your due diligence. There’s no one system that works well for everyone, perfectly, but our hope is that this one will probably work the best for us.”

Blackbaud will also facilitate the application process as well as the administrative workflow for teachers and other staff so that they can maximize their time. “When you’re a small school, you wear many hats. But anything we can do to make people’s jobs better, so they work smarter not harder, is really important. We can, including me, find ways to use our other skills more effectively,” said Sra. Duncan. Curriculum is one thing that is very much on her mind that Blackbaud will help streamline.

See what other successes the year held in Thoughts on the First Half of the Year from TNCS Head of School Shara Khon Duncan, and read on for what’s to come!

What’s Next

One important change is with the upcoming implementation of i-Ready supplemental work. “We used to use SuccessMaker, but it didn’t really work for us the way we wanted it to this year. What we found through our research is that i-Ready will give students the ability to practice their skills in ELA and Math in a classroom rotation,” said Sra. Duncan. The advantage is that, as a supplemental program rather than a primary curriculum, it will help diagnose any problem areas students might be having and feed that information to the teacher.

Narrowing the focus a bit, with TNCS having graduated its first-ever 8th-grade class this past year, the Middle School is very much on everyone’s mind. One thing that this class showed Sra. Duncan is that test-taking skills are critical. “It’s a double-edged sword,” she said. “Being a school that doesn’t do standardized testing, per se, we nevertheless have to prepare our students for the standardized testing they’ll need to enter high school. So, we’re working on test-taking skills for our middle school students, in particular, and they all took the ISEE test this past year.”

She says she wants to make the TNCS Middle School the best it can possibly be and is focusing on strengthening that program over the summer.

Our goal is to help people understand that we go all the way through 8th grade. We want people to see this as a school that doesn’t end after preschool or even after elementary, it ends at 8th grade, and we want families in for the long haul. Families who enter in preprimary or primary believe that something is good about our program, so why not see how that can continue in their child’s life? They know that language is important, and they get to see it in action. I’m in awe everyday of what our teachers do, but we want that to continue all the way up. So that’s something we are working on.

Another thing the first crop of 8th-graders revealed to Sra. Duncan and to Curriculum Coordinator Adriana DuPrau, TNCS’s “resident expert on high school applications,” is that middle schoolers must get used to doing daily homework, so they increased the amount mid-year. “That may sound like not a popular thing, but it helps them get that time management piece down that they really need in order to be prepared for high school,” explained Sra. Duncan. “Students adapted to it wonderfully, and parents were right along with us!”

With the test pilot of increased homework having gone so well, this new initiative will continue for the coming year. Additionally, research and other long-term projects are on the horizon. “There’s a lot more that we need to teach our students, such as understanding how to use and be critical of technology. There are pieces that they have to learn about the whole process, and what’s important is helping them understand what goes into the process of researching. It’s almost as important as the writing process,” said Sra. Duncan.

She continued: “We feel very good about our first graduating middle school class, and we learned an awful lot about the whole process. Ultimately, we just want to make sure that we have everything we need to make sure our students are prepared for when it’s time to move on from here.”

It’s a Partnership

With everything that Sra. Duncan and the rest of the school is doing to ensure that TNCS students are learning and flourishing, it’s vital to remember that parents also play important roles in this process. One big theme of Sra. Duncan’s is the importance of two-way communication and that her door is open. When community members hear things thirdhand, for example, but don’t bring their concerns forward, uncertainty spreads. “When people are talking to others about something they’ve heard regarding the school, but they don’t come to me, I can’t address it. If you have a concern, I’m happy to talk to you about it,” she said.

She’s going to be straight with you, but she also really wants to hear what you have to say and is going to be very fair about that. “I know I have more peace of mind if I just say my piece or ask my questions. I don’t want anyone to ever feel like they can’t come talk to us. This is your child. Come talk to us. We may not agree, but we’ve got to talk about it. I get it—I’m a mom, too.”

A second important theme is that TNCS is a work in progress—a very innovative and exciting work in progress—and that there’s no such thing as a perfect school.

The advantage is that we will always keep trying to be better. We are a young school, but that’s a good thing, because we’re trying to figure out how to make this work beautifully every single day. We are trying to learn from every little thing that doesn’t quite work the right way. We fix what doesn’t work, and we figure out how to do more of what goes great. This hidden gem down here is pretty amazing, and when people really find out about it, they are duly amazed.

Final Thoughts

When asked what the main thing she wanted parents to know about her first year at TNCS, Sra. Duncan said: “This is what I was made to do. This is my thing. I’ve been working toward this my whole life, and I didn’t know it. It’s just so wonderful. This is my place. I love it. I really love it.”

And, with characteristic good humor: “Also please don’t run over me while I’m directing traffic. Please.”

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TNCS Upper Elementary and Middle Schoolers Make Their Annual Pilgrimage to Echo Hill!

On May 30th and 31st, The New Century School 4th- through 8th-grade students took their fourth annual overnight field trip to Echo Hill Outdoor School (EHOS), in Whorton on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Chaperoned by teachers Nameeta Sharma and Ilia Madrazo, girls bunked together in two separate dormitories (older girls, younger girls), and boys bunked together in two separate dormitories (older boys, younger boys). The idea of trekking to Echo Hill originally came from former TNCS teacher Kiley Stasch, who used to go when she was in school and cherished the memories. See the first TNCS trip to EHOS here.

And, for the first time, Immersed got to see the fun firsthand!

tncs-echo-hillEHOS is a very special place. The campus is strikingly beautiful, sitting in forested acres adjacent to the Chesapeake Bay, and it’s brimming over with happy faces—children and camp counselors alike. Birdsong and bullfrog calls are everywhere, and these natural sounds mix in a very interesting way with the sounds of munitions being fired across the bay at Aberdeen Proving Grounds. This only adds to the feeling of having traveled in space but also in time. Also, the beauty is not merely skin deep. EHOS has a clear mission and has been carrying it out for close to 50 years: “We are dedicated to creating a safe and supportive environment for students to feel challenged and successful with the freedom to think, question, and express themselves.”

If those words seem buzzy, they are not just for show. In all aspects of their day, camp attendees are reminded of these values, from waking each morning to going to bed at night and through all of the delightful things that happen in between. TNCS campers were there for just over 24 hours, but weeklong programs are also available.

Types of programs also vary in curricular content. TNCS has so far always opted primarily for the Individual and Group Development curriculum, which matches up beautifully with TNCS’s own school values. It is what it sounds like—each student is asked to set certain goals and encouraged to work toward achieving them, all while maintaining respect for the needs of the group as a whole. This makes for both personal success as well as great bonding experiences. Now, these goals . . . they are not related to work in the traditional sense nor to academics. The Individual and Group Development program takes place on the exalted Adventure Challenge Course, which features experiences like a rock-climbing wall and a zipline, among others.

Because of the size of this year’s group, components of other EHOS programs were also mixed in so that each student got at least four “classes.” So, in addition to lots of time on the Adventure Challenge Course, they were also offered classes from the Science and Ecology curriculum, such as Chesapeake Bay Studies (by boat!), Night Hike, and even time to hang out on the beach.

The overall experience was incredibly rich, and TNCS students will surely not forget it soon. The photos and videos in the post will tell much of the story, and we’ll walk through the general outline of the trip, step by step.

Arrival

tncs-echo-hillTNCS arrived just before lunchtime, and after a 2-hour bus ride were hungry! EHOS counselors know kids, however, and immediately walked the group to a big field to play Sword-and-Shield tag. In this version of tag, if someone touches you with their arm (sword), and you were not able to defend yourself with your shield (arm bent in front of you as if holding a shield), you knelt in your spot with both arms bent and hands facing up. A well-meaning passerby could then high-five you as he or she runs past. You can ask for help, too, if you see that someone is close. Once you get two high-fives, back onto the “battlefield” you go. The kids had a ball with it, and it was not lost on the adults watching nearby that the team-building message had already begun!

Lunch

Next, it was time to feed the hungry hordes. Note that TNCS was far from the only school in attendance—hundreds of kids were there, and everyone dines together. How does EHOS handle such a huge group? We take you now to their giant mess hall, known as the “Whip.” Inside, camper volunteers acting as “biddies” help set up the long dining tables with silverware, plates, and cups and make sure the surroundings are clean. TNCS students volunteered right away!

Once set-up is complete, a bell rings and everyone on campus gathers in a big circle to first offer thanks for individual moments a camper might be grateful for (optional) and then for a moment of silence before the meal (compulsory for all). This circle hints at the Quaker roots of Echo Hill and is a very pleasant tradition.

Groups are next invited to enter the Whip and find a seat. Schools may sit together or they may mingle with other schools. At each table of 10, though, an adult sat at each end. At least one of the adults would be a camp counselor and that counselor served the family-style meal. Only two people are allowed up from the the table at any time, so even despite the crowds, meals proceed in a remarkably orderly fashion. Two campers fetch the dishes and bring them to the table, and one by one the counselor asks each diner what he or she would like and how much. Once everyone is served, diners have the option of going up for salad, fruit, a vegetarian option, and whatever leftovers are available from the leftover table. This is part of why meals are served family style—the food is touched by only one serving utensil to keep it clean so it can be offered again at the next meal. It also helps convey the message that we’re all in this together; let’s enjoy it! There’s even a giant dinner bell!

Campers can eat as much as they want, and many around the Whip had third and fourth helpings. But, and this is a big but, the individual diner is agreeing to eat what is on his or her plate. This being a Thursday, a mock Thanksgiving meal was served complete with all the fixins’.

TNCS students were introduced to the concept of SLOP at their very first meal at EHOS. SLOP stands for Stuff Left On Plate, and stuff left on plate is waste. Campers were always reminded of the impact of wasting food, and all campers strove to reduce their individual contributions to the SLOP bucket. At the end of each meal, the bucket is weighed with the goal of seeing that eight progressively decline over the course of the stay. Bet that has never not happened! Not only does the practice really motivate the kids to reduce waste, but EHOS food is universally considered delicious, so eating it was not a problem!

Orientation

After lunch, the group learned the ropes of EHOS. Camp counselors Elizabeth, Emma, Sahil, and Annie provided an orientation, explaining the rules to be followed and how things work in general. The #1 rule at EHOS, they stressed, is being polite. This includes being respectful and listening. “You are your own mom this week!” Counselors went over everything from bugs (download a helpful pdf here), hygiene, and safe practices to the all-important passports! These included information about classes as well as opportunities for reflection on those classes, handy maps, journal pages, and space for autographs.

Campers were also asked why they were brought to EHOS and gave such answers as, “to interact with nature,” “to have new experiences,” “to have fun,” and “to learn new things.” That pretty much sums up exactly what happened! They were also introduced to the concept of “Echo Hill time,” which basically means letting go of the tyranny of the clock, as in, “What time is it?” “It’s Echo Hill time.” Counselors stressed the importance of being fully present in the experience happening rather than anticipating what is to happen next. The daily schedule is organized by the ringing of a bell loosely corresponding to a general time of day rather than to a specific hour or moment in time. It’s quite nice!

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Orientation ended with “tribes” being assigned. TNCS students were split up into three groups, and each group would remain together as a tribe during all classes. Finally, the group returned to Merrick Hall to set up bunks and settle in. Once they got their belongings in order, they were free to play indoors or out while “extra time” wound down, and afternoon classes began.

Afternoon Classes

And then it was time for class! One tribe went off for Chesapeake Bay Studies, and two groups went for separate Adventure I and Adventure II Classes in the adventure area.

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Tribe 7 wound up at the Pathfinder, “a climbing wall and cargo net topping out at a trapeze, while classmates coach and aid in the belay system.” Not familiar with the belay system? This is part of the security used while campers scale the wall. They are asked to make contracts with the counselors and observe certain rules while on the equipment. They are also asked to make observations about the equipment and then to set goals, “find their path,” and challenge themselves. Students then had to collectively agree on what order they would climb in, with two at a time on the wall. “Rock on” was the signal that they could get to it!

Unfortunately, thunder soon rolled in, followed by drenching rain, so activities shifted indoors. EHOS staff had no trouble keeping everyone happy, entertained, and challenged, however. It took TNCS students a few minutes to get the nuance of the games they were playing, but once they figured out the key, Counselor Cody was no match for them!

Dinner

Before they knew it, the afternoon had passed, and so had the rainstorm. Back to the Whip they went, with another pre-meal circle and some outdoor games.

After another delicious meal—after every delicious meal, in fact—the counselors put on some form of entertainment. Sometimes there’s a message; sometimes, it’s just plain goofy–and the kids eat it up!

Night Classes

From about 7:00 pm to 8:30 pm, students got to take part in one more class. This ranged from Night Hike to learning what it’s like to be a nocturnal animal and have eyes that can adjust to seeing in darkness.

Then it was light’s out at 10:00 pm and all quiet by 11:00 pm.

Breakfast 

Breakfast at the Whip was a much-looked-forward-to affair, and it did not disappoint. Having worked up such an appetite the day before and slept so well Thursday night, by Friday morning, TNCS students were ravenous!

Morning Classes

Friday was a gorgeous sunny day, so all activities were in full swing. The Chesapeake Bay studies group (Tribe 7) actually got to board the boat and head out on the water. Catfish were kissed. The Pathfinder was scaled by many in Tribe 6, and the Zipline was tackled by the Middle Schoolers (Tribe 5). It was a fabulous morning.

The shrieks heard in the background came from the nearby Zipline action. For this activity, campers had to climb up a tree to a platform, transfer to a zipline harness, and then soar on down to the ground. They could opt for all of the above or part of the above, but they had to try at least part. This is part of the “challenge by choice” philosophy and TNCS students pushed themselves past what they thought themselves capable of.

It was also mandatory for anyone stepping inside the “cone zone” to wear a helmet, and all students had to help out at the landing.

Yes, that’s a miniature ukulele you hear in the background.

Even Mrs. Sharma went for it!

Some students made it look easy; others had to work up their courage, but they were all happy with their outcome.

Goodbye, Echo Hill!

Although no one wanted to leave, it was time to depart after lunch on Friday and head back to TNCS to close out one truly memorable school year. And we’re so glad to have gotten that special time with TNCS’s first-ever graduating class of 8th-graders. What a send-off!