Sierra McNeill Writes a New Chapter for Herself and for TNCS!

Sierra McNeill came to The New Century School fresh from Charlotte, NC to take over the 6th- through 8th-grade homeroom and instruct TNCS students in grades 4–8 in English Language Arts (ELA). She is originally from Fort Bragg, NC, near Fayetteville, and, until now, had lived in North Carolina all her life. Why Baltimore? Ms. McNeill said she was really just looking for “a change of scenery.” Fayetteville had the small-town feel, and Charlotte was an up and coming small city. Baltimore was a good next step up because she wanted to get a little farther north (bit not too far north with colder weather) and because her best friend has lived here for the past 7 years. When Ms McNeill would visit over the years, she developed a fondness for good old Charm City and moved here April 1, 2022! She also appreciates the proximity to Washington, D.C., but feels it’s a little too fast-paced for her.

Even though Baltimore feels “just right,” moving here has still required some adjustments. One of the biggest has been not being as close to her family (see photos), who she is extremely close to. “It was definitely a transition,” she said. “I’m coming from southern roots, and we are all about hospitality—everyone is your neighbor—and it’s not really like that here.” Well, maybe not in Baltimore at large, but TNCS has been a saving grace. “TNCS has been great. I was nervous about coming into this environment as a new teacher, but everyone was very receptive, including the students,” she explained.

Let’s find out more!

Background

Ms. McNeill graduated from Fayetteville State University (FSU) in with a bachelors of arts in English language and literature. She was also a cheerleader there all 4 years—Go Broncos! She had planned to use her degree as a stepping stone: “Teaching wasn’t my first go-to plan. I just knew l going to be a lawyer or a celebrity stylist (I love fashion).

But the way life works is never how you imagine it. So I moved to Charlotte after being administrative assistant in a health care office, and my friends encouraged me to consider teaching there.”

She initially rejected the idea due in part to the enormous responsibility involved in educating children. Quickly realizing that having that very understanding is exactly what we need in teachers, she went for it. “I interviewed and jumped in mid year in a 3rd-grade classroom after their teacher left.” She didn’t feel grade 3 was quite right for her and sought a classroom with older children. She accepted a position as 5th-grade teacher at another school, where she taught for 2 years. And then it happened: she began teaching ELA and reading to 6th-graders, “and the rest is history,” as she puts it. Middle school is her jam! In fact, she taught 7th- and 8th-grade briefly at a Baltimore public school when she first arrived here. “It didn’t quite feel like home,” she explains, “coming from the school in Charlotte, which was very close knit, very family oriented. This school didn’t give me that community aspect. So I started looking again and came across TNCS. I spoke with Ms. Johnson and the previous interim head of school, and I felt really good from the jump.”

Sierra McNeil at TNCS

At Orientation Day for the 2022–2023 school year in late August, it was clear that Ms. McNeill was excited for what was coming. Her enthusiasm for teaching–and teaching ELA—is obvious.

I feel like every teacher has their unique ‘teacher swag’ in the way they approach things. I’m very calm spirited, although I am also energetic and bubbly. Being a younger teacher, I try to be ‘chill’ so I can connect with the kids in what’s happening in their society and their day-to-day. I’m a music and sports person, so I can connect with them on that level, too.

Reading

“I try to make everything relatable and to emphasize that real-life perspective in all subjects but especially in what we’re reading,” explained Ms. McNeill. “I try to make sure they can find things they enjoy reading. So, I take what is necessary for them to learn in the curriculum and somehow tie it into reality so it’s full circle to make it really click for them.”

In Quarter 1, grades 4–6 read Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson, and 7th- and 8th-graders read Lois Lowry’s The Giver. Age-appropriate themes galore in those two novels!

Next up is an 8th-grade “novel study” focusing on Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer and breaking out into small-group discussions about this gem of a book. Also, new this school year, in 8th-grade seminar, 8th-graders will be reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and discussing that must-read with Head of School Erika Johnson in depth. This seminar, by the way, will also include high-school prep, what’s expected of them as leaders of the school, and other topics specific to this age group. “It’s nice that they get their own personal time, despite the class being mixed ages, to really hone in on what they need to accomplish before the end of the school year.” said Ms. McNeill. “I think it’s very cool that Ms. Johnson recognized this need and made it happen. I think it’s going to be beneficial this year and hopefully for years to come.”

Writing

Her fondness for teaching reading notwithstanding, Ms. McNeill’s true passion is teaching writing. “I like seeing kids gain confidence once they figure out the formula—how writing is just taking your thoughts and laying them out.” Her students actually just started this writing unit this week, and Ms. McNeill has done all she could to get them excited for it. She is a sworn journal-er, sometimes writing from a script—the goals for the day and which of those were achieved—sometimes just cataloguing her day. “I try to instill that in the students, too. We do ‘Daily Writes,” where I give them a prompt. But I other than asking that they write in complete sentences, we keep it informal.” She explains that these exercises help get her students into the habit of writing paragraphs, so that when it comes time to write actual essays, they are prepared. She also strives to engage them by giving these prompts as hooks that will reel them in, which is great practice for getting them to think through their topics and how they will write about them.

“It’s Very Different—A Good Different!”

Now that Ms McNeill has been at TNCS for a couple of months, she is finding her groove. Mixed-age classrooms are both new and not so new to her. Although she had never taught in one until now, she did attend Montessori school (Cumberland Road Elementary) for a couple of her elementary years. “Although it’s different, it’s a good different,” she said. “It exposes ids to different different aspects, different maturity levels. It has been challenging, but once I sat with Ms. Johnson and talked about expectations, it kind of just started to flow. I had already taught  with differentiation—teaching different ways to different learning styles and diversifying lessons for different learning abilities. So I was able to tie my experience in here at TNCS.”


Despite two huge life changes, relocating to a new city plus accepting a position new to her in many ways, Ms. McNeill is certainly finding her way. She is a vegetarian and a foodie and appreciates the many restaurant options Baltimore offers. She enjoys strolling around downtown, the Inner Harbor, Fell’s Point, and along Howard Row‘s Black-owned businesses in particular. She likes reading and going to the movies. What she would really enjoy, though, is getting to know the TNCS community better. “I’m very family-oriented,” she said emphatically, “if there’s any family-inspired event going on, invite me. I’m looking for different things to engage in in the community, so if your kids play sports outside of school, I’ll show up and support!” She is also very excited for upcoming school events like Hispanic Heritage Nights and the Winter Concert—she can’t wait to join the festivities and immerse herself in and be welcomed by the TNCS community!

Alexis Boyd Joins TNCS as Director of Student Support!

As The New Century School enters its second decade, the TNCS Community has welcomed some wonderful human beings to join it. Alexis Boyd, Directer of Student Support, is one of them. The first thing you’ll notice about Ms. Boyd is her smile—she’s almost always smiling! Director of Student Support is a somewhat new role at TNCS, combining elements of the Deanship and Counselor, but as we’ll see, Ms. Boyd wears both hats perfectly.

Meet Alexis Boyd

Ms. Boyd is originally from Pittsburgh, PA and moved to Maryland at the age of 8. Since then, she has lived all over the state, from Montgomery County to Ann Arundel County to the Eastern Shore. Currently, she lives in Howard County with her 10-year-old son, Levi.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in Social Work and Sociology from Salisbury University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore; a Master’s degree in Counseling from Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA; and an Educational Leadership degree from Loyola University. If you’re thinking that Ms. Boyd knew from early on where her career path would take her, you’d be correct: “I enjoy working with students, and my pull has always been the educational system,” she said. “I always wanted to do my part. I think I have a unique way of getting to know people and creating safe spaces, and I want for people to be able to say, ‘I left feeling better than how I came in’ after spending time with me.”

Before joining TNCS, Ms. Boyd was working with 6th- through 12th-graders at The SEED School of Maryland, a college preparatory boarding school here in Baltimore City. It’s the only school of its kind in Maryland and draws students from all over the state. Ms. Boyd even lived in adult housing on campus for a 6-month stint while working there from 2011 through 2022 (with a 2-year hiatus working in an outpatient mental health services agency). It was her second job out of college, and she started there as a counselor, working her way up to senior counselor. When she returned to The SEED School after her time at the mental health agency, she took a more academic position as a dean and worked up to senior dean, where she was able to really dig into some of the things she loves, like creating engaging programming. She hopes to resume some of those aspects of her role at TNCS, perhaps in the spring. She also became familiar with Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) standards (SEED is a charter school).

She says that working with older students was both very different from what she does at TNCS as well as similar in some ways. Kids of all ages need lots of support, after all.

Alexis Boyd at TNCS

When Ms. Boyd came to TNCS, she knew she was entering a school in the midst of some important transitions and maybe even transformations under the leadership of Erika Johnson. She saw that as an opportunity:

I’m really big on culture and climate—bringing the community together as a whole and having a good time out doing it. If I can sprinkle a little bit of sunshine here and there, that’s what I plan to do. I’m trying to keep that consistent positive energy in the air.

She even has an action plan to get everyone’s day started off with positivity. Each morning, she’s the first one at the gate so that her smiling face is the one of the first they see, accompanied by a cheery “buenos días” and “let’s have a marvelous day!” Toddlers who clung to their parents and cried on coming to school now run straight to her and grab her hand. Older students who are “too cool” for such demonstrative affection get fist bumps with any manner of follow-up gestures that create connection and maybe even elicit a smile. Ms. Boyd says she finds unique ways to connect with TNCS students, as many as she can. Some like to “connect smiles”; others need a quick wiggle dance before entering the school building and some need that recognition of an individual characteristic, such as Mr. Cheerio who comes to school every day munching on a bag of Cheerios.

“I’m trying to be creative and welcoming students to school. That’s a joy. I do try to insert a positive vibe into everything I’m doing. We’re always going to try to have a good time, in addition to making sure that students feel safe, loved, and supported and that mentally they are solid,” she explained.

Director of Student Support Role: The “Check-In Queen”

Ms. Boyd is nothing if not enthusiastic about her position at TNCS that combines the behavioral aspect a dean monitors for and the mental health aspect a counselor monitors. If that sounds like a double helping of responsibility, never fear, Alexis Boyd is here:

I think being a counselor and being a Dean go hand in hand. Even when I’m disciplining children for negative behaviors, I’m still nurturing them. If you do it right, it all goes together.

I’m big on emphasizing choice: I want students to know that they will always have a choice but must be accountable for whatever the reaction is from that choice. I want to give kids the autonomy to make good decisions, because when they get out of school that’s honestly what life is all about: you make decisions all the time. So it’s teaching them to get in the habit of making good decisions and having self-agency. Every action you choose has a reaction, but you don’t get to choose that reaction.

And, when it comes to consequences, I want even those to be a conversation with the student. What works for one child may not work for another child, and learning the difference and learning how each student thrives is going to be the most important part of my job. I’m  helping them move toward the TNCS way while still keeping their individuality and their true selves.

Ms. Boyd has created a daily routine that helps her attain the objectives of each part of her role, while still being flexible enough to allow her to adapt to the needs of the moment. After her morning sunshine sprinkle, she does what she calls “check-ins” of each and every teacher—the culture and climate emphasis isn’t limited to TNCS students but extends to everyone in the community. Teachers and staff might need a cup of coffee or for Ms. Boyd to watch their class for a few minutes. She makes sure they feel supported.

Ms.Boyd then takes care of her administrative tasks, like paperwork, preparing for sessions with students, convening with Ms. Johnson, and so on. Afternoons are spent with individual students who may need the counseling side of Director of Student Support. She has created a lovely welcoming space for them to come unload, talk, play, fidget, or just admire the twinkling lights she has hung. “Whenever a student wants to talk to me or needs that one-on-one, they really gravitate here.” You can see why.

The space is warm with plenty of sensory calming items. In addition what is pictured, she plays soothing sounds like birds chirping or ocean waves and plans to bring in some gentler lighting as well. Her sessions with students employ mindfulness techniques and deep breathing exercises . . . and a lot of good old talking about how they feel. The walls feature prompts to help students find the words to express their feelings.

And then there’s the Feelings Pillow! Ms. Boyd describes her approach this way: “The word ‘therapy’ scares kids off with negative connotations. I prefer ‘play counseling.”

Even students who don’t have a specially scheduled session come to this room and get a little more centered to be able to go about the rest of their day. As Ms. Boyd is going about her day, she makes sure students know she is watching out for them and has created a system of communication that lets her know if students are struggling in the moment without disrupting class: a thumbs up means all is okay, a thumb parallel to the ground means let’s check in later, and a thumbs down means they’re going to her safe space now for even just a couple of minutes.

She also had TNCS students make journals in which to set both short- and long-term academic and other goals for the day, the semester, etc.. They also have accountability buddies that help them stay on track.

Progress so Far

With all that Ms. Boyd has already accomplished, it may be easy to overlook that she is still acclimating to her new role, her new school, her new students. Fortunately, she says, the TNCS Community has been very welcoming. “Learning all the things that I need to learn in a school that is not as MSDE heavy as my previous school was has been a journey so far, but the community is very open to me and all of my kooky ideas. I am very eager to play a good role here, and the staff has really allowed me to feel comfortable. I can go to anyone and ask questions,” she said.

She is already making her mark, too, having the opportunity to do some curriculum writing for a more structured advisory committee. But what she’s really known for? Recess parties! She’ll take the school’s sound system to the playground and dance with the preprimary and primary TNCS students to their hearts’ content. Their current favorites are “Happy,” by Pharell Williams, and “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” by Justin Timberlake. Videos, please! She also holds “lunch bunches” of four or five students at a time, during which they all eat lunch together in her office, then play checkers or Twister, or just talk. (She takes full advantage of these “fun” opportunities to also work in some TNCS Core Value discussions and some social-emotional learning!)


Where she gets all the energy from is a mystery, but we’re sure glad she brought it to TNCS! So how does Alexis Boyd decompress? In her off hours, she does daily self-care, which might take the form of a few minutes meditating by herself, just sitting in silence in her “own little corner.” In addition, she’s a sports mom and adores it. “You will always find a fold-out chair in my trunk, and there’s always an extra pair of tennis shoes and a bag of ‘just-in-case’ clothes in the back seat,” she said. Levi attends private school in Howard County and plays basketball and football, so Ms. Boyd is at practice or games several times a week.

On Sundays, though, she’s probably out to brunch with the gals. Egg-cellent idea, Ms. Boyd!