Service Learning Gets Souped Up at TNCS!

Service is a core value at The New Century School, along with Respect, Compassion, and Courage. Dean of Service Learning Alicia Danyali makes sure that TNCS students have regular projects to engage in that benefit the community and environment, from the Fell’s Point neighborhood, to Baltimore City, to national and international initiatives. Past projects include—but certainly are not limited to—Kindness Rocks, tree restoration in Puerto Rico, blanket-making for sick children, and raising storm water run-off awareness.

Soup’s On!

On Friday, September 27th, Ms. Danyali introduced her vision for Q1’s service learning project for TNCS 5th- through 8th-graders: making soup kits for food insecure citizens of Baltimore. She found this opportunity through an organization called Live with Purpose, whose mission is to [engage] volunteers to meet vital community needs and live with purpose through meaningful service.” The soup kits will be distributed to Living Classrooms and other local organizations like Paul’s Place who will distribute them to identified families in need to provide them “a hot and hearty meal.”

Before the kit assembly began, though, Ms. Danyali provided some context:

I know you’ve been partnering with other classrooms on some school-related service initiatives, but, today, you get to do a service activity with a focus on human dignity. No matter what anybody’s background, everybody deserves to be respected. We have to have meaning in our lives, which means that we have to take care of ourselves but also other people here in our school community and even beyond. I think it’s a really important value to serve. So, today we’re going to work on soup kits for people in Baltimore who are facing food insecurity. Food insecurity means that a person may not have the means to get enough food. When I reached out to Live with Purpose, they said they needed help making soup kits, and I said, ‘I have the perfect helpers!’

She next shared some sobering facts:

  • The USDA defines food insecurity as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.”
  • A quarter of Baltimore residents live in a food desert (an area where fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods are difficult to find due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers).
  • Nearly half of Maryland’s hungry are working—people who don’t make enough to provide both healthy food and a safe home for their families.
  • 1 in 4 children in Baltimore City’s schools are hungry when arriving to school, having not eaten a full meal since they left school the day before.

These are terrible truths that are difficult to fathom—25% of school-aged children go to school hungry? And 25% of all Baltimoreans don’t have access to healthy food?

These soup kits could make a real difference in our neighbors’ lives. So, during Teacher’s Choice time, first middle schoolers then elementary students spent 30 minutes putting together bean and barley soup kits to serve 4 to 6 people each. Stations were set up for pairs of students, and they got right to it!

“I think this is a great way to give back to the community,” said one TNCS 6th-grader. “This is fun, and it makes me feel good because I know I’m helping,” echoed a 7th-grader. They worked very carefully and neatly to produce attractive, quality kits.

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Thanks to TNCS students and TNCS Dean of Service Learning Alicia Danyali, some Baltimore residents might feel a little less insecure this fall. “I’m confident that knowing you’re helping other people, you’ll be very happy,” said Ms. Danyali.

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First-Ever TNCS International Service-Learning Project!

The 2018–2019 school year has been an epic year for The New Century School in so many ways, but certainly not least for having the Middle School in full bloom—now all the way through 8th grade! TNCS has anticipated this moment for years, growing closer and closer to a fully fledged Middle School, and, in a few weeks, TNCS will graduate its first 8th-grade class.

But not before we take a peek at another first they pioneered—TNCS’s first-ever international service-learning project. In March, three girls and one boy (known here as Z, F, B, and J), ages 13 and 14 years, went to Puerto Rico for 6 days! This trip has been in the works all year, and fundraising efforts, such as twice monthly pop-up hot beverage shops, toward travel expenses really paid off.

Why Service? Why Puerto Rico?

Service is a TNCS Core Value, and, throughout the year, students take on various initiatives toward their service-learning goals, from intra-campus projects to broader, community service–oriented endeavors. To really bring home what service learning means, though, TNCS students should experience how their efforts can have farther-reaching impacts.

Puerto Rico was the natural choice:

  1. The island is readily accessible—no passports are required for TNCS students, and it’s relatively easy to get to.
  2. Availability of resources and advice from TNCS community (staff, parents) with knowledge of Puerto Rico was an enormous help for planning.
  3. It’s a Spanish-speaking country for students to use their developing Spanish skills
  4. There’s a clear need: The island is still restoring itself after hurricane damage.

Puerto Rico: Here We Come!

Adriana DuPrau escorted the group and said just prior to their departure: “They are very excited—this is the trip of a lifetime for some of them!” She facilitated getting them school IDs, helped create packing lists (hats, bug spray, closed shoes for hiking, beach gear, etc.), and generally did all of the planning with advice from Ms. Madrazo and a very helpful TNCS dad who hails from Puerto Rico. You might be wondering how Mrs. DuPrau got to be the sole chaperone, but you’d have to look no farther than back at the past school year, during which she has grown very close to the middle schoolers, such as while helping them prepare for their big transition to high school, and has discovered that she really enjoys that age group. Mrs DuPrau also spent 6 weeks in Puerto Rico in college, teaching English. “Traveling is a big part of who I was, but I haven’t been able to do that with three small children. I think this will be good for us.”

In the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, a one-two punch that ravaged the island, we saw an opportunity to help affected communities, and in doing so, to deliver an unforgettable experience for our 8th graders. I got to be the lead organizer of the trip, and got to team up with multiple members within the Puerto Rican community to maximize the relief effort and add an interdisciplinary scope to the students’ experience! It was such an awesome experience and I never, ever thought I could be away from my family for 7 days . . . but I did it, and I’m so happy I did. The four 8th-grade city students completely stepped out of their comfort zone and completely killed it! I’m so incredibly proud of them!

Now, let’s break down their itinerary day by day, interspersed with some additional debriefing from Mrs. DuPrau.

Sunday

The group left on Sunday, March 17th at 5:00 pm, departing from BWI airport and arriving in Puerto Rico at 9:00 pm. After they picked up their rental minivan, they drove to their digs in Luquillo, a small beach town close to the rain forest that was recommended by TNCS English Language Arts teacher Ilia Madrazo, who is from Puerto Rico.

B was like the mom of the group; she wanted to make sure everybody was okay. She always made sure that everything was tidy. I had them wash their own dishes and clean up, so our living space was always very organized. J was also so helpful, carrying the groceries in, for example. I got to see a really nice side of him, very kind and respectful.

Monday

The group kicked off their first full day with a sail on a catamaran and snorkeling, both firsts for most of them.

As urban children, not accustomed to being around the ocean, this thought made them nervous, but we went to a very secluded spot to give them the space to get comfortable in the water. And they did it! It was really beautiful; the water was crystal blue and warm.

After their big days, they all ended up usually falling asleep watching a movie on the couch. We would have breakfast at home and usually packed lunch. They didn’t really love going out to dinner; they were more into coming home and chilling.

Tuesday

The group’s main plan on Tuesday was to explore El Yunque rain forest on the “Off the Beaten Path” tour. They also walked to waterfalls and got a chance to swim and goof off.

It was a really good trip. The kids got to see something really different, and they experienced this trip on many different levels—yes, it was service learning, and that was definitely the focus—but they got to experience so many other things, and now they all want to keep traveling. So that’s also important. We always had a full day planned, and when you’re traveling it’s important to take advantage of the fact that you’re somewhere new. This group was just so relaxed. I loved that they got to do more than just service learning because they had so much fun. I never had to calm them down. They never had any anxiety about all the new things they were doing.

Wednesday

On Wednesday, the group had planned a trip to Camuy River Cave Park, the third largest underground cave system in the world and formerly among the top 10 attractions in Puerto Rico. However, the caves have not been open to the public since the twin ravagers Irma and Maria paid them visit. So, they did some sightseeing San Juan and Ponce instead. “We had a good time visiting the forts and shopping around and seeing all the architecture of old San Juan,” said Mrs. DuPrau.

I loved seeing them speaking Spanish. I think it’s important to visit places that are Spanish speaking. All the kids practiced their Spanish—they ordered food in Spanish and tried to speak Spanish to any of our tour guides. They’d also help each other, and that was really nice.

Thursday

This being Math Kangaroo day back at TNCS, the travelers took the Math Kangaroo exam in a conference room where they stayed and then mailed in their scantron sheets. Afterward, it was time to hit the beach!

They opened up a lot as well, sharing the emotions they go through in middle school. We’d have these conversations while we were driving in the van, and they’d have all these questions. They started talking a lot about how what they go through when they’re feeling down, and I think it’s so important to equip them with how to handle those emotions. They think no one understands, but we do understand even if we’re not all in the same set of circumstances. I think community within the class is how we have to move forward and doing things all together, even though it’s 6th through 8th grade. It will help them with the social and emotional part of being a middle schooler. We can definitely add more of that in our curriculum.

Friday

The service-learning stint took place in Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve in Fajardo, which is “a bioluminescent lagoon, mangroves, coral reefs, dry forests, sandy and rocky beaches set between headlands.” “We went to what used to be a coconut palm conservatory, but those trees are not native to Puerto Rico,” explained Mrs. DuPrau. “They were planted there and were completely wiped out after Hurricanes Irma and Maria. So the nature conservatory wants to now plant native trees, which are stronger and better able to withstand any future hurricanes.”

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Este día de las madres, sorpréndela con una membresía AMIGOS Para la Naturaleza. Pon al alcance de tus seres queridos la posibilidad de disfrutar durante todo el año de nuevas experiencias transformadoras en lugares históricos y ecosistemas únicos en Puerto Rico.

Working in pairs (they had to share shovels), the overall group planted more than 100 native trees of various species up and down the beach and into the forested area, with the TNCS contingent responsible for a large fraction of that number. The tour guide spoke only in Spanish.

The service learning part of it was awesome. It was really physical, and I’m hoping that it impacts them in a way they’ll remember. We were working with a whole bunch of other people of all ages to plant these huge trees. It was hard, but the students didn’t complain because they knew it was their community service. One thing that I’d like to change about the trip is having them do a little bit more community service, such as with animals. There were so many homeless dogs and cats, and the students really wanted to help them. I reached out to a few places but it was hard to find any that would accept younger than high school age. We met a lot of older students, who were very nice to our students.

Saturday

As they were departing Puerto Rico at 3:00 pm, they used their last hours to have some down time and enjoy the beach!

I definitely want to do it again. I was just so proud of the kids again for stepping out of their comfort zone. There was no homesickness or complaining, and, in fact, they all got along great. One of the things that I pulled away from the trip is that they all got to know each other on such a deep level. They walked away calling each other best friends. They were all really respectful of one another, yet they’re all very different. It was was also great to see how open they were to meeting new people. I felt like I saw who they really are. Z, for example, helped an elderly man across a stream without any prompting. It was nice to see how many people thought that they were such great kids—I was told multiple times that this was the best-behaved middle school group they’d ever seen.

Interview with Students

Along with Mrs. DuPrau’s great overview of the trip, let’s hear about it from the students’ perspective.

Immersed: What was your overall impression of your trip?

Z, F, and J (as a chorus): It was fun; it was amazing, great, awesome, exciting.

F: It was full of opportunities to get out of your comfort zone.

Z: Oh yes. All three of us jumped off a cliff! I was so scared to do it because I thought I was going to drown! But Carlos, our guide, made us feel more comfortable.

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J: I was scared of heights, but I did it.

Immersed: What other experiences did you have?

Z: I liked planting trees.

Immersed: Planting trees—was that the service project?

Z: We planted more than 16 native baby trees altogether.

(B joins our chat. Which was really more like their chat :).)

J, F, B, and J (all completing each others’ sentences): There were a lot more trees before the hurricane, but they were palm trees. They want to get rid of those and replace them with native species because they are stronger and will be less likely to blow over in a hurricane. We planted them in the rain forest.

Immersed: Tell us more about being in the rainforest.

Z: It was very dry, surprisingly, and there were so many vines and roots snaking out.

Immersed: Tell us what you learned about your service.

F: I felt like I was helping out after the hurricane.

Z (with lots of support from F): Yeah, there are still a lot of houses that are torn down or without roofs, and they’re still fixing everything to this day. I feel like I was doing something really good by planting trees because when the next hurricane comes, they won’t be the kind of trees that knock down houses!

(Many inside jokes ensue, none of which were comprehensible to an outsider.)

Immersed: What was the best part of your trip?

Z, F, B, and J (as a chorus): The rainforest! Not where we planted the trees but where we went hiking—El Yunque.

Z: Then there was the catamaran. It was good! We went snorkeling. We saw a sea urchin.

J: I almost fell over from trying to walk in the flippers.

(Cascades of giggles.)

Z: The flippers were so hard to walk in; we looked like penguins.

Immersed: What other wildlife did you see?

Z, F, B, and J (as a chorus): We saw a huge snake! And some huge iguanas at the old fort in San Juan. They were really big.

Immersed: Wow. You guys really did a lot.

Z, F, B, and J (as a chorus): We did; we did. We went to a lot of beaches, too.

Immersed: Tell us about meals—did you cook in your apartment? Did you mostly eat out? What kinds of new foods did you try?

Z, F, B, and J (as an excited but unintelligible chorus except for a few words): Good, non-spicy, eggs, guacamole.

Z: On days that we went to the beach, we would return to the apartment and make spaghetti or pizza or cereal or something. On days we were out, we would eat out.

Immersed: What else do you want readers to know about your trip?

Z: If you go there, bring a lot of sunscreen.

F: Don’t go to Wendy’s or Burger King.

(Lots of agreement from the gang.)

Immersed: How do think this experience changed you?

Z: It made me have a closer bond with these three. It helped us understand each other more. Before we went on the trip, I was probably the only one who really spoke to J, and I was one of his first friends here. Now we all hang out.

F: This changed me in so many ways. I go to know those three better, and we have a better bond.

J: It made me appreciate them a lot more. Because honestly B and F and I weren’t that close. But once we got to Puerto Rico, and I actually got to spend time with them, it was just all fun.

(Next the group reflected on their changing dynamics back at school and how other students also have begun respecting them more.)

F: Even the teachers see us differently. We may be more mature.

Immersed: Think about the service aspect of your trip. Did it make you want to do more?

Z: I now look around at things and see what I can do at the moment.

J: I’ve been helping out more around the house and saying hi to strangers when I pass them on the street.

(After several attempts to wrap things up, it soon became clear that the group was stalling in order to miss science class. Ahem.)

Immersed: Did the trip awaken the love of travel in you?

Z: I like travel—I just don’t like airplanes!

F: I enjoyed my first airplane ride.

J: There was a lot of turbulence, but it was fun to be on a plane.

(Next we had a bittersweet conversation about where they are going to high school. Sniff.)

Immersed: Okay, any last thoughts? Anything at all?

Z: We are very grateful for all of the people who came to our fundraising and also to the private donors—other TNCS parents. We wouldn’t have been able to go without them.

Immersed: What will your next service projects be? Anything over the summer?

Z: I’m coming to volunteer here as a camp counselor over the summer.


The energy the four students had as they reflected on their international service-learning trip was so tremendously positive—this was clearly a very wonderful experience for them. Interestingly, they took away from it exactly what we would hope: expanded horizons and a broader outlook on life and on people as well as a deepening sense of the beneficial impact they can have on the world.

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Souvenir from the group.

Well done, you four—you’ve made an indelible mark on 724 S. Ann St. We will miss you next year but know that you will make your respective high schools all the nicer for your presence!

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The group reflects on a wonderful experience . . . and looks ahead to the amazing adventures awaiting them.

TNCS Dean Attends Progressive Education Summit!

As a key part of its identity, The New Century School embraces progressive education. It was a natural fit, then for TNCS Dean of Students and Head of Lower School Alicia Danyali to attend City Neighbors Progressive Education Summit here in Baltimore at the end of January. According to its website, “The Progressive Education Summit brings together hundreds of educators from around the region and the country to share best practices, work with great educational thinkers and practitioners, connect with other educators, and work to bring alive the child-centered, democratic ideals of progressive education.” Attendant schools were an equal mix of public and independent, and about 550 educators from across the country participated.
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The 2019 summit, the eighth annual, featured master classes, the first summit storytelling event by 10 to 15 storytellers, over 30 workshops, a Baltimore resource fair, and abundant networking opportunities. In addition, this year, David Sobel was the Keynote Speaker. The author of Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Community, Sobel is a leading national voice in place-based education. He was recognized as one of the Daring Dozen educational leaders in the United States in 2007 by Edutopia magazine.

Mrs. Danyali had much to say about her experience at the summit, all glowingly affirmative. “I loved everything about it,” she said. “There were a lot of opportunities to attend workshops and hear speakers throughout the day—more than any single person could actually attend.” The conference was divided into categories: Educator Reflection and Care, Arts Integration, Place-Based Education, Leadership, Learning Disabilities, Health, Trauma, Cultural Relevance, Development, Social Justice, and Progressive Education. “When I heard that David Sobel was the Keynote, I was really excited. I am a big fan of his.” She absorbed quite a lot from the presentations and will bring her perspectives to bear at TNCS. She started by describing the overall spirit of the conference then discussed the presentations that stood out most to her.

Progressive Education Talks

“The conference started off with some Baltimore high school students speaking, and I thought that set the tone so beautifully. The speeches were very uplifting,” said Mrs. Danyali. One was from City Neighbors and spoke about how a teacher changed his life, believed in him and supported him, despite the odds being very heavily stacked against this student just because of growing up in what is considered quite a dangerous part of the city. Another, from Digital Harbor, immigrated here 2 years ago speaking no English and is now fully English proficient. She spoke about all of the opportunities the school has afforded her in pursuing her dream of becoming a pilot. “Both of these demonstrated right from the start of the conference that educators should not label students. Even when we feel defeated by a set of circumstances, there are a lot of resources that we can solicit. We can network with other schools, for example. No matter how well funded a school is, there will always be social challenges to deal with. So just knowing that support is out there is helpful,” explained Mrs. Danyali.

The purpose of the conference was about how progressive education looks in different settings. One of the main themes was storytelling, and how an educator’s story can shape how he or she guides students. “What I really was interested in was how there can be different takes on various philosophies, like civic engagement or helping people with trauma, and how that can be embedded in the curriculum and not so stand alone,” said Mrs. Danyali.

Place-Based Education

Although place-based education was one of the categories/presentations of the conference, it informed everything. Said Mrs. Danyali:

The philosophy is very much in line with TNCS’s approach. You use what’s in your neighborhood, and you use what’s in your surroundings as part of developing curiosity and an open-ended inquiry-based curriculum. For me, it was great because [Sobel] had so many inspiring, real-life examples in his presentation from not only high school but also all the way down to preschool, where this should start. I was really impressed with the examples he shared from around the country of students exemplifying place-based learning in all age groups. Creative City, right here in Baltimore, is one school implementing the approach.

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Mrs. Danyali explains that all three preprimary classes this spring will follow Sobel’s teaching prescriptively, which is essentially student driven. “All of the preprimary students seem to be really interested right now in fire trucks and the fire brigade, so we’re looking to connect with a local fire department to get them to come and do a presentation. This will also help to take away that fear of hearing the siren by knowing they are here to help,” she said. “We’ll make that connection right here in their own community and do more investigation.”

As noted, place-based education is for all age levels; in fact, it is inherently a developmentally appropriate approach because it is authentically student driven. “As I drive to work in the morning, I’m always thinking about what Baltimore offers for place-based education,” said Mrs. Danyali. “This happens to be Black History month, and we have Frederick Douglass, the Underground Railroad, and so on. We make connections with local businesses, such as Greedy Reads Bookstore. We’ll get to know the Post Office around the corner. This gives students a sense of identity in the community and less fear, because Baltimore sometimes gets a bad rap. Also, understanding the cultures that make up the community is vital—inclusivity and diversity.”

Importantly, place-based education integrates all subject areas, including service into the unit of focus. Students learn all of the other disciplines as well, but rather than having the idea that doing math, for example, is all drudgery, they develop the mindset that they can use math to find answers to something they have gotten curious about in their community surroundings. They start to grasp that learning is not for learning’s sake but is useful and meaningful and a way of navigating the world. They are empowered—they see that their intellects make an impact on that world; they become problem-solvers. “It’s a concept called ‘firsthandness,’ explained Mrs. Danyali.” Firsthandness sort of speaks for itself, but, essentially, it’s experiencing the world as it is, where it is, rather than how it’s packaged and presented inside a classroom.

Service Learning

Another important value at TNCS is Service, and TNCS students in all divisions pursue regular service-oriented activities around the campus (e.g., taking out the trash, helping escort younger students into the building at morning drop-off, beautifying the grounds) and in the wider community (e.g., blanket-making, stenciling storm drains with environmental awareness messages—the list is too long to reproduce here!).

So, sitting in on a service-learning talk appealed very much to Mrs. Danyali.

With my role in service for the school, I learned about service-related programs for students going into high school that are happening right here in Baltimore. One is a 5-week community garden project that they apply for that happens once a week starting in April in a community that is currently a food desert. I shared this with Mrs. DuPrau as a possible area to explore for some of our students to help them get that experience, because they will have a service commitment in high school to fulfill in order to graduate. So, this could be a jumping-off point if they’re interested in being outside and meeting other students. It’s almost like a camp in that way. This volunteering might even lead to part-time paid work. The programs also have a lot of community support.

Positive Schools

Mrs. Danyali was also very moved by a presentation by Shantay M. McKinily, Director of the Positive Schools Center, University of Maryland School of Social Work.

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The presentation was on the Maryland Commission on the School-to-Prison Pipeline and Restorative Practices, a statewide campaign on training teachers on how to implement and teach restorative practices, which is a passion of Mrs. Danyali’s. Ms. McKinily covered new and emerging research out of Harvard on cutting the “school-to-prison pipeline,” the unfortunate trend of so-called “problem students” coming out of schools and going right into the criminal justice system. “Something that is really shocking to me and has been occupying my thoughts is that, as prisons are privatized, they are somehow able to get data from schools on detentions and other disciplinary measures taking place in 4th grade and using that information to project where to build prisons and where prisons will be needed,” said Mrs. Danyali.

tncs-head-of-school-attends-progressive-education-summitThis idea leads her right back to a truth she holds dear—that we need to attend to the social and emotional needs of our youngest students:

This is game-changing in the sense that, although we put a lot of thought and energy and time into the middle and high school years about where our children will end up, in reality, our society has allowed the prison system to get information on percentages of younger children who are chronically absent or chronic behavior problems and use those numbers. It defeats the purpose of all of these research-based grass roots efforts. As hard as people are working to tell their real story, the narrative already in place—that if they are in this position by 4th grade, they’re doomed—comes from a much bigger system working against them.

Ms. Mckinily gave lots of examples, some from personal experience, such as the need to build more schools and have smaller class sizes so that teachers are not having to contend with such large numbers of students, upward of 30 a class. She explained that the prevailing classroom management principle at her school was to divide the class into three groups. Imagine a hypothetical top group, who is more or less left to their own because they can work independently. and score well. The hypothetical middle group might show promise but needs help, and, although it can be difficult to determine exactly what they need, they will likely get tutoring and other support. The lower group needs lots of catching up and are treated almost like a lost cause.

Ms. McKinily felt that she may have contributed to the prison pipeline when she was an educator because that hypothetical lower group never got what they needed. This is partly because her school was counting on her to get as many students as possible to that high group so the school would receive better government funding. In addition to being academically behind, the lower group might have many other social challenges to contend with, and so their host of problems was just too overwhelming to deal with, and school resources would go to students who had a chance to make it to the higher-achieving group. The lower group, of course, became the group identified as a problem—fodder for the prison pipeline. Ms. McKinily felt strongly that she needed to get the word out there: That lower group needs the biggest focus to avoid the devastating and lifelong repercussions of being identified as a societal problem and put away.

“Her goal was to change the narrative, to get the support that they need for student wholeness, for literacy, and for staff leadership,” explained Mrs. Danyali. “The Positive Schools Center works with schools in Baltimore City, such as Wolfe Street Academy and Benjamin Franklin High School. These are ‘big small steps’ for change, but the success stories are amazing.”

Onward and Upward

“It was a great experience and definitely relative to many aspects of the mission at TNCS,” concluded Mrs. Danyali, about the summit. As a result of her attendance, Mrs. Danyali will have the chance to take her expertise into the wider educational sphere. She was asked to join two D.C. groups geared toward early childhood education—one is on progressive education and another is for more specifically preschool immersion educators who are also doing place-based curricula. “We network through workshops, emails, and newsletters and focus on developmentally appropriate curriculum and how to bring school out into the community . . . being flexible and more student-driven. You can cultivate that in preschool and build on it.”

TNCS Middle School Students Learn Grant Writing!

At The New Century School, service to the community is a core value. Dean of School/Head of Lower School Alicia Danyali has integrated service learning throughout the school year in many ways (read last week’s “check-in” with her for more on specific initiatives).

Last month, she  took it to the next level when she invited 11th-grade McDonogh School student Laya Neelakandan to present on her impressive experience with grant writing to support several charitable projects. She learned of Ms. Neelakandan last June after having collaborated with one of Ms. Neelakandan’s teachers (Mary-Catherine Irving) on a service project for her son’s school. Ms. Irving told her about Ms. Neelakandan’s remarkable accomplishments in service initiatives, and they discussed the possibility of a visit to TNCS. “I am excited that the students will have this opportunity, which the 6th- to 8th-grade students can use as a ‘jumping off point’ to initiate their own grant writing to support and fund service,” said Ms. Danyali.

Grant-Writing Presentation

tncs-grant-writing-presentationEven this early in her sure-to-be illustrious career, Ms. Neelakandan has already received 11 grants from five different foundations—she has been awarded every grant she has ever applied for!

After introducing herself, she began her presentation by describing her first grant-writing experience for The World We Want Foundation (WWWF). This organization promoted philanthropy among youth all around the world and was introduced to Ms. Neelakandan by Ms. Irving. Her proposal was designed to teach the importance of giving back at a young age, so she recruited groups of 1st-graders to make blankets, hygiene kits, and bags of trail mix to distribute to Baltimore’s homeless citizens.

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With her written grant proposal, she was first awarded enough to fund a couple of such projects. She next wrote a follow-up proposal to fund all of her projects and received three $1,000 grants over a 3-year period. This allowed her to expand her philanthropic efforts to include the India Project, which is a school supplies drive for Indian schools. She made and sold friendship pins to buy dictionaries and other supplies that she delivered in person in India.

tncs-grant-writing-presentationAfter a very successful run with WWWF, which closed down in 2015, Ms. Neelakandan went in search of a new project to support and came across Karma for Cara (K4C), which is based in Baltimore and is dedicated to “Empowering Youth to Repair Our World.” Following the online instructions, she applied for and won four $1,000 microgrants. With these, she was able to keep her already successful WWWF projects thriving as well as add a backpacks drive. She continues to support K4C.

She then learned about Disney and Youth Service America (YSA)’s 2017 Summer of Service Organization Grant and, to her surprise, won the $500 grant 2 years in a row. She says the experience “proved that I should be confident in myself and that I can change the world (and you can too!) and showed me that there are people out there who believe in the power of youth.”

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Ms. Neelakandan’s work has not gone unnoticed. Recently, the Orokawa Foundation (a grant-making organization in Towson, MD) approached her about funding her projects. She is using the money to establish a library at a domestic abuse shelter. TNCS students may be assisting her in this endeavor in the near future.

And—breaking news–in the days since she presented at TNCS, she has been awarded yet another grant in the amount of $150. Kindness Grows Here is a new foundation that awarded its first Annual Kid Kindness Grants this month! “[They] want kids with awesome ideas to submit applications for ways in which they can help spread kindness in their school, community, town, or neighborhood.”

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Ms. Neelakandan closed her TNCS presentation with some hard data (which has since been updated, given the new grant she just won):

  • She has raised $10,478 in the 6 years she has been doing these projects.
  • She has delivered over 150 handmade fleece blankets, 800 bags of trail mix, more than 1,200 sweet treats, 750 hygiene kits, and 300 backpacks.
  • She has directly helped over 1,250 less fortunate men, women, and children.

She has also been invited to speak at fundraisers, won awards, and influenced fellow students. With these mantras in mind, this is how she has done it:

  • There is no such thing as a small act of kindness.
  • Find your passion and use it to change the world.
  • Keep applying to different places and never get discouraged if it does not work out.
  • You have the power to change the world, and don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.
  • Ask questions, be a leader, be kind and empathetic.

Interview with Laya Neelakandan

Because the visionary Ms. Neelakandan had to return to school immediately following her presentation, she kindly agreed to an email interview for this piece, transcribed here.

How did you become interested in grant writing?

“When I was in 4th grade, my mentor, Mrs. Mary-Catherine Irving, asked me if I wanted to lead her class in service projects. She introduced me to the concept of microgrants, and, at the age of 10, I applied for and received my first grant. Since then, I have continued to immerse myself in grant writing to get support for the projects that I make for the homeless.”

Do you plan to go to college? What will you major in, if so?

“I do plan to go to college after I graduate high school. Though I’m not completely certain yet exactly what I want to major in, I’m very interested in English and writing and aspire to be a journalist.”

What future career do you plan to pursue?

“I want to pursue journalism as a future career and use the power of my words to make a difference in my community and highlight social justice causes.” [Ed. note: You go, girl!]

Can you describe your experience of presenting at The New Century School?

“Presenting at The New Century School was an amazing experience for me. I had never presented about my grant writing before, and I loved seeing the students’ earnest and engaged faces as I told them how they have the power to change the world. Their interest shone through especially during the Q&A, where they asked me some of the most intriguing and introspective questions I had ever received, including what inspired me to keep giving back and if my school supports my work.”

Will you be doing additional work with TNCS students?

“The TNCS students are going to be conducting a collection drive for gloves, mittens, scarves, and socks for families at a shelter that I have been working with this past year (this is the Family Crisis Center shelter where I built the library for the children). I am excited to see what other ideas the students come up with.”

What are your hobbies (or, what do you enjoy doing in your free time)?

“In my free time, I enjoy playing piano, classical Indian flute, practicing classical Indian dance, singing, reading, and writing.”

What do your parents think of your work?

“My parents are extremely supportive of my work. They help drive me when I go out to distribute the items to the men and women who need them. They have also instilled in me the importance of using this gift of life to help others.”


Ms. Neelakandan is pictured below right with a woman outside a homeless shelter last January. “I had just given her some handmade fleece blankets. It was below freezing outside,” she explained.
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Ms. Neelakandan drove home two primary points for TNCS students: First, youth have the power to do good, and, second, write from the heart when seeking a grant—“If you really care about something, it will show through in your writing,” she said.

“She was inspiring and wonderful,” said Ms. Danyali. It certainly will be wonderful to see just how she inspires TNCS students and what great things they will make happen in the coming months!

TNCS Strengthens Community Partnerships with Southeast Baltimore Area Schools!

Summer camps at The New Century School are not just for TNCS students—any student age 2 through 8th grade is welcome to attend. This year, TNCS collaborated with the Development Committee of Patterson Park Charter School to donate two specialty camp “scholarships” as part of a raffle fundraiser for PPPCS, as shown in the flier below.

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MeHeading up the raffle was Development Coordinator Heather Savino, who describes her position as comprising two roles: “first and foremost, it’s fundraising, and, second, external communications.” She explains that the Development Committee is relatively new, and she took over as Coordinator for the 2017–2018 school year. The summer fun raffle was an effort to both raise funds for PPPCS as well as represent an activity that benefits students and families. Ms. Savino explains, “Someone on the committee mentioned that spring is the time that all of the parents are talking about where they’re sending their kids over the summer. Because not everyone at our school can afford summer camp, we decided to try to find a way to make summer camp more widely available.”

Sharing Values, Sharing Resources

Dr. Liz Obara, PPPCS’s Community School Coordinator, who oversees the school’s relationships with other Baltimore schools, organizations, and businesses, then suggested reaching out to these partners to see what kind of opportunities they could provide PPPCS families. Enter TNCS. TNCS Co-Founder/Executive Director Roberta Faux agreed to donate two summer camps for this very worthy cause: Spanish Immersion Camp and American Music System Camp. “We are very grateful for the collaboration between TNCS and PPPCS, and for TNCS’s support of our students,” said Dr. Obara. “We are all supporting this City’s children, so we recognize it’s all hands on deck—and collaboration is key. I love to see how organizations can work together to support each other.”

The raffle, which also included chances to win admission to American Visionary Art Museum, Maryland Science Center, Sky Zone, and more, was held June 15th. Tickets were $5 each, and the reception to PPPCS’s first-ever fundraiser of this kind was great. Not surprisingly, “the winners were ecstatic,” said Ms. Savino. Much of the success of the raffle is probably owing to its two-pronged approach of raising money and also providing community enrichment. “PPPCS’s vision is cultivating lifelong learners and helping families create strong neighborhoods, and so we want to make sure in everything that we do that we are striving to achieve that through our partnerships. We are so grateful to everyone who donated incredible opportunities and services for our families,” said Ms. Savino.

Meet a (Very Cute) Camp Winner!

Spanish Immersion Camp began July 23rd, and the winner of that raffle was none other than Dr. Obara’s family! As a parent of a 1st-grader at PPPCS and the PPPCS Community School Coordinator, Dr. Obara says, “I wear (at least) two hats at PPPCS, so I am doubly grateful for the donation of Spanish Camp at TNCS!”

For many important reasons, she is glad for this opportunity for her child:

As a parent, I am really looking forward to my son’s participation in the Spanish Immersion Camp. As a bilingual family, we value both our languages, but really find it difficult to sustain fluency in both languages. Spanish Immersion Camp will not only offer our son more exposure and practice in Spanish, but it will also give him such a fun association with the language—so that learning won’t be a chore! I also find it valuable that the camp will emphasize the culture of Spanish-speaking countries as well, so that the language-learning won’t be isolated from the culture. Finally, I think it’s important that my son sees the importance of language learning, and can be in the company of other kids and families that also share this value.

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PPPCS hopes to do a similar raffle next year, and TNCS will continue to support their efforts to establish positive, collaborative partnerships among southeast Baltimore schools and organizations.

Like TNCS, PPPCS is a school that recognizes its impact in a neighborhood—not just for its students, but for the whole community. Schools that are committed to ensuring this impact is beneficial to all community residents are educating students in ways that go far beyond numbers and letters. As Dr. Obara put it, “Collaboration is key.” Research backs this up: When families, community groups, businesses, and schools band together to support learning, young people achieve more in school, stay in school longer, and enjoy the experience more.

Baltimore Communities Unite and Engage in the Face of Change

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Disclaimer: This post is first and foremost about social, not political, issues and is not intended to offend any group of any kind. 

It’s Friday, January 13, 2017 on a mild winter evening in southeast Baltimore. On this date frequently associated with superstition and bad luck, city residents are convening at Highlandtown Elementary/Middle School to reverse the trend. “Organizing at the Local Level” was an auspicious, not an unlucky, occasion, and, whether deliberate or not, this community meeting also closely coincided with another important date: what would have been Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 88th birthday.

This year, MLK Day resonates with particular significance. As the nation comes to terms with an incoming federal administration and the sweeping policy changes it will bring, many people are facing profound uncertainty about the course their lives will take in the near future. For some, 2017 feels like a reversal of progress, something unprecedented in the last century of United States history. We have tried to continually move forward, not backward, and to tighten our embrace of many of Dr. King’s social principles. One pillar of his ideology is community, or agape, the Greek word for love of humanity.

For Dr. King,

Agape is disinterested love. It is a love in which the individual seeks not his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It begins by loving others for their sakes. It is an entirely ‘neighbor-regarding’ concern for others.

In Baltimore City, residents strive to mend communities and neighborhoods, and progress has been seen and felt throughout the city, temporary setbacks notwithstanding and certainly not extinguishing our collective hope. But, as newly elected Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen described it, many city residents are currently experiencing “fear, anxiety, and disempowerment,” and our city once again faces a critical juncture. Baltimore’s identity is rooted in diversity, a big part of which is its open-armed welcome of immigrants, many of whom are becoming increasingly vulnerable. Other disenfranchised populations are also feeling this vulnerability, such as the poor and the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning) community.

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Councilman Zeke Cohen

Taking up President Obama’s call that in times like this, “If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing,” Councilman Cohen and colleagues Councilwoman Shannon Sneed, Councilman Brandon Scott, Delegate Brooke Lierman, Delegate Robbyn Lewis, Casa de Maryland Regional Director Elizabeth Alex, Kenneth Morrison Wernsdorfer, Taylor McKinney Stewart, Sarita Evjen, Joel Rivera, Vernon Horton, Susie Cramer, Katie Long, Leanna Wetmore, Adriana Roja, and other community activists did just that with Friday’s community meeting.

About 250 city residents attended to find out how to resist looming program cuts and worse and, as Councilman Cohen put it, “[to] show D.C. that we are entitled to a decent standard of living.” To rebuild our democracy, in effect.

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Returning to Dr. King’s notion of agape, he wrote that, “Agape is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action . . . Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community . . .” Thus, this gathering was about to what to do after next week’s marches and protests are over. There’s plenty to be done, as the panel let the audience know. From the very practical advice for families facing potential deportation to broader community-wide appeals, the audience was called to action. “Take a step toward unity and away from division,” said Councilwoman Lewis. “Get outside your personal bubble,” urged Councilman Scott.

Quoting from Councilman Cohen’s Facebook page:

. . . I stared out onto a sea of my fellow citizens, united in opposition to bigotry. The diversity of the crowd was beautiful. All of the different colors, creeds, and communities gathered in one space reminded me of why I love our city. Although we spoke in different languages, our message was clear:

When they send the deportation squads, we will say, “Not here, not today.”

When they harass or shame our LGBTQ brothers and sisters we will say, “Not here, not today.”

When they attempt to strip away the last vestiges of our social safety net and endanger our most vulnerable citizens we will say, “Not here, not today.”

This is the Baltimore the national media won’t tell you about. This is our city.

Being our “Education Councilman,” Cohen particularly wants to galvanize schools in this effort. “Community schools,” he says, “recognize assets within a community—what are the good things that are already happening—and they look at the challenges and how they can bring people together. The community school is a beautiful model of how we can all work better to lift up our children and this city.”

And that’s where The New Century School community might join in, by strengthening connections with other groups in the city; by volunteering with organizations like CASA de Maryland who help, among others, our undocumented neighbors; and by supporting our elected officials’ attempts to sustain Baltimore city and its residents with such important legislation as a repeal of the farebox recovery mandate to keep public transportation public, the consent decree for Baltimore City police reform, and changing the S pass policy to keep buses available for students to get to school.

img_0468The panel discussion was followed by break-out circles of smaller groups to discuss specific problems and explore solutions. Councilman Cohen said that afterward, the organizers were told by many that the event was “the first time they felt validated in a public space.”

As Delegate Lewis said, “America is already great.” And so is Baltimore.

See Friday night’s full recorded panel presentation here. We’d like to think it would have made Dr. King proud.

January 20, 2017 Update:

Here is a list compiled by the meeting organizers of ways to get involved locally either by volunteering with an elected official or serving with an advocacy group.

Volunteer with an Elected Official’s Office:

  • Councilman Zeke Cohen (District 1): zeke.cohen@baltimorecity.gov
  • Councilman Brandon Scott (District 2): brandon.scott@baltimorecity.gov
  • Councilwoman Shannon Sneed (District 13): shannon.sneed@baltimorecity.gov
  • Delegate Brooke Lierman (District 46): brooke.lierman@house.state.md.us

Serve with an Advocacy Group:

TNCS Continues Annual Service to the Community with Project Linus

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Please drop off new or gently used coat donations to TNCS by December 12, 2016 in TNCS’s reception area.

The run up to the holiday season is always a special time at The New Century School because it’s an opportunity to show our support to our local community and beyond. In the month of November, TNCS has undertaken two outreach initiatives to benefit our neighbors in need, first with the 6th annual healthy food drive for Beans & Bread (through St. Vincent de Paul) in conjunction with United Way of Central Maryland, and second with the coat drive for CASA de Maryland, a nonprofit that works with low-income Latino immigrant families. Please note that this latter initiative is ongoing through December 12, 2016, and a donation box is located in TNCS’s reception area.

img_0089This year, though, is special for a new effort. On November 18th, as part of their Service learning, TNCS upper elementary and middle school students teamed up with Project Linus, a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide homemade blankets to sick and hospitalized children in need—to “provide security through blankets” and “spread blanket hugs nationwide.” Head of School Alicia Danyali and Parent Council Head Sakina Ligon both have experience with Project Linus and felt it was a great fit for TNCS.

Ms. Ligon explained in an email to parents that “volunteerism teaches basic character foundations to children, and having them help other children teaches them that people in need are really just like them. Studies have shown that serving as volunteers promotes healthy lifestyle and choices, enhances development, teaches life skills, promotes citizenship, improves the community, and encourages a lifelong service ethic in children ages 5 to 14 years. The value of volunteering teaches your children the importance of donating their time, a core value at TNCS.”

img_0084On the day TNCS students became “blanketeers,” a school tour group happened to be coming through and were duly impressed by the service-learning-in-action they witnessed. Baltimore City/Baltimore County Chapter Coordinator Fay Husted instructed the 4th-, 5th-, and 6th-graders on how to produce the blankets. Mrs. Hutchens was a teacher and principal in Baltimore City schools for 37 years and now devotes her time to Project Linus.

Said Mrs. Husted:

Project Linus us a national organization with chapters all over the country. Being a chapter coordinator means being very organized because hundreds of people make blankets for me—individuals as well as school, church, and senior groups. We accept quilts and fleece, knitted, and crocheted blankets. When we get the blankets to our storage facility, a group of about 10 ladies help me sew in handmade Project Linus labels. Once we get the labels in the blankets, I bag them, and my husband and I deliver them all over Baltimore City—mostly to hospitals, but also to Ronald McDonald House, Believe in Tomorrow Children’s House at Johns Hopkins, House of Ruth, shelters, and some camps. We deliver between 200 and 250 blankets a month.

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Fay Husted

Project Linus was established in Parker, Colorado on December 24, 1995 and has delivered more than 6 million blankets nationwide to grateful kids in the going-on 21 years since. “Project Linus is a wonderful organization. A non-profit is considered good if 13% or less of their donations are used for administrative purposes. Less than 7% of ours are,” explained Mrs. Husted, “because everybody is a volunteer.” Other than some monthly and annual maintenance fees, such as for the right to use Charles Schultz’s thumb-sucking, blanket-carrying, sage-beyond-his-years character as their mascot, they operate with very little overhead.

From dozens of available patterns, Mrs. Husted chose Fringed Fleece Blanket that can be made very quickly for TNCS students. Here’s how they did it!

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img_0106Said Mrs. Danyali, “the students are going to write notes of encouragement to go along with the blankets they make.” One fifth grader commented that she was very glad to participate in a project that would help kids in need. Another, with obvious sincerity, said he wanted to make his blanket as good as he possibly could.

With leftover material, students can make additional items like headbands during Teacher’s Choice time.

For past years’ initiatives, such as primary classrooms collecting dimes to purchase and donate livestock through Heifer International, see Lessons in Gratitude at TNCS, Lessons in Thanksgiving at TNCS, and TNCS Holiday Outreach Programs.