The Art of Teaching K/1st: Meet Lindsey Sandkuhler!

Lindsey Sandkuhler took over The New Century School‘s mixed age Kindergarten and 1st-grade homeroom for the 2019–2020 school year. Teaching, she says, is “kind of a family profession,” and both of her parents are teachers. She always knew she would follow in their footsteps and attended Towson University to earn a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education. She is from Towson and lives there still.

Road to TNCS

From college, Ms. Sandkuhler never looked back. After graduating, she was hired by Howard County public schools, where she had completed her student teaching. There, she taught 4th grade for 2 years, then 2nd grade for 3 years. Next, she says, “I left the county and decided to go for pre-K—big difference!” At a nature-based preschool, she taught 4- and 5-year-olds, then spent an additional 2 years at a different private preschool for 5-year-olds. “Now, I’m here, year 9!”, she said. “It’s been a bit of a whirlwind!”

So what did bring her to TNCS? A bit of good timing! Her last school announced in February that it would be closing permanently in June. Ms. Sandkuhler saw that TNCS was hiring, liked what she saw, and applied. She was offered a position the day after she interviewed in May, at least partly because her teaching style meshes so well with TNCS’s educational approach. “It was both a relief not to have to scramble for employment as well as very exciting for me to embark on this new adventure,” she explained.

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At TNCS

Back to liking what she saw, the aspects that most appealed to her about TNCS were precisely what makes TNCS the school that it is, particularly, small class sizes, the emphasis on The Arts, and differentiated learning. “I have done a lot of different kinds of teaching for a lot of different ages,” she said, which has given her insight into what works in early childhood and lower elementary education.

I really love how small the classes are. In the county public school, at one time, I had 28 2nd-graders in my class with no aide; it was just me. I felt like I couldn’t reach all my students. There was no way, and I burned out because of that. I was trying to get to everybody, and I just couldn’t do it. One of the great things here is the small class sizes. By week 3 I already had a good grasp on where most of my students are.

It’s a story we hear time and again about teachers being underresourced and, by consequence, students often winding up underserved. At TNCS, Ms. Sandkuhler has a very manageable 14 in one class and 13 another. “That’s amazing,” she says, “and I love that it’s so centered around where the students are. Yes, we’re going to encourage them and challenge them, but not to the point of frustration.”

She is here again making a comparison to her stint in the county public school system. “You had to stay on pace. If your students didn’t understand addition, too bad, you had to move on to subtraction because the test is happening on this day coming soon, regardless. That’s another reason I needed to move on. I felt bad for the kids. They weren’t ready, which was totally fine by me—we all learn differently—but that’s not how the county saw it. It was not okay.”

Ms. Sandkuhler teaches Math and English Language Arts (ELA), the two core subjects. She shares the K/1st cohort with Pei Ge, who teaches Global Studies, Science, and Mandarin. When asked about TNCS’s multilingual bent, she says, “I was very forthcoming at my interview about not being bilingual, and it wasn’t a blocker. But I think it’s wonderful to start teaching language so young. My students are now teaching me things in Spanish and Chinese, which is really cool.”

Love of Art and Nature

So what makes Ms. Sandkuhler tick besides a love of teaching? “I love art. My sister is an artist, a sculptor, so I live vicariously through her sometimes,” she said. “When I taught pre-K, during the kids’ naptime, I’d sit and watch YouTube videos on how to do calligraphy, and I would practice during my downtime. That’s something I had always wanted to learn. It’s very therapeutic. I like to draw and paint, too.”

In addition to making art, Ms. Sandkuhler enjoys being outside in nature (hence the nature-based preschool), especially hiking. Her parents live in an idyllic setting on the Choptank River in Dorchester County, and she goes there to kayak, crab, and fish. She describes her mother’s love of hummingbirds and the handheld feeders that the birds will come feed out of if you remain still enough. “Sometimes it’s so nice to get out and away,” she said.

Not surprisingly, her pursuits out of the classroom influence her approach inside it: “Parents should know that I’m creative. I’m patient with the students. If they’re not getting something a certain way, then we’ll try a different approach. Basically, I’ll be their kid’s advocate for the school year.” Among a parent community that values art, creativity, and compassion, this will all come as very welcome news. There are additional benefits as well, including the cognitive gains that come with the synergy between art and academic disciplines:

The county schools are so into math and reading—which is fine, I get that, but they’ll take away band and art. Those are the first things to go. But, for kids who might be struggling with math and reading, the arts might be the only thing they look forward to at school. If they can’t have a reason to go to school, the other subjects are just going to suffer more. So, I really feel strongly that creativity needs to be incorporated not just in art class, but throughout the curriculum, including my subjects, math and ELA. I just find it very important. More understanding starts to open up for the child.

Artfully said, Ms. Sandkuhler! Welcome to TNCS!

Meet Multifaceted Loretta Lee: One of TNCS’s New Lower Elementary Teachers!

Given its progressive, inquiry-based bent, it’s no surprise that The New Century School attracts some very special educators, as we have seen over the years. The 2019–2020 school year boasts several new faces, all of whom will be profiled by Immersed. Today’s post, though, is all about Loretta Lee, who has a 2nd- and 3rd-grade homeroom and teaches English Language Arts (ELA) and Global Studies to the 2nd- through 4th-grade cohort.

Background

IMG_0773Right off the bat, Ms. Lee identifies herself as an educator. This avocation seems to be central to who she is (although it’s not the only way she sees herself). “I have been teaching since the late 1970s,” she said. “One of the reasons I’ve stayed in the profession as long as I have is that I consider myself a lifelong learner. I enjoy learning new ways to teach and new techniques, and I’ve been give the opportunity in most schools that I’ve worked in to be able to grow in all sorts of different ways, like sitting on hiring committees, running book clubs, and so on.”

She also explains that she has seen education trends come and go and has clear notions of what works and what doesn’t:

I’ve seen a full gamut of what’s going on in education. One of the things I’ve chosen to be here at TNCS is the progressive nature of the school and the ability to meet kids where they are. That’s not true in all schools, and that’s one of the things that definitely drew me here. I’ve been in places that really embrace that, and I’ve been at schools that really don’t.

She earned an undergraduate degree in early childhood education in Boston and went on to obtain a graduate degree at University of Wisconsin in Madison, where her major was Educational Law and Policy Studies. In support of these studies, she testified at senate assembly meetings as well as served as an intern on a committee for how monies were spent in public schools. She also created curricula for incarcerated youth. “Oftentimes what happens to those poor kids is that their education stops as soon as they get incarcerated,” she explained. “We put together a curriculum so that when they came back out, at least one thing was in place for them.”

At TNCS

Ms. Lee brings a rich background of experience to her classroom, and this becomes a valuable asset not just to her lucky students but to her as a teacher as well, as she explains. “One of the benefits that comes with age is knowing yourself well enough to know what fits. I don’t think you know that when you’re very young and just starting out. So this is where my career journey has led me.”

Although she now lives in northern Baltimore County on a 3 1/2-acre piece of property, she and her family have lived all over the country. Her husband is also a career educator, and they have taught in Connecticut, where they met; on the West Coast; and for 15 years in Texas before relocating here in 2014. They decided to come back to be near their parents, one set in Florida, the other in New Jersey. The Lees  are now right in the middle! They also really like where they live: “There’s a donkey next door,” said Ms. Lee, “and roosters everywhere. We have horses and two large dogs we wanted to give the ability to be outside and stretch their legs. It’s very beautiful and quiet. I only wish it was about 15 miles south because the commute isn’t great,” she joked. Besides her four-legged babies, she has two sons. The oldest is 27 and still lives in Dallas. The younger one (age 19) is here with them and doing a “gap year” between graduating high school and starting college, explained Ms. Lee.

Before coming to TNCS, she taught at Krieger Schechter Day School in Pikesville. But now that she’s at TNCS, she finds it refreshing, she says. “It’s really a fit, even with trying to get used to the nuances of a new school and its culture. The kids have been great, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know them. My colleagues have been very sweet, and I know I’m probably the oldest, but I always say I’m young at heart.”

As for how she wound up teaching ELA, she explains that this is the first time in a long time that she is not teaching math but has always been interested in ELA.

I went to a parochial school for many years and I knew that’s not the way I wanted to teach, and it’s not the way I learn best either. So, I wanted to open up my mind to other ways of getting the same information. There’s not one way—there are many, many ways, and I just wanted to allow for that. Visually, aurally, it doesn’t take you long to realize strengths and weaknesses when you’re presenting in multiple ways. Where are they picking it up the best? That’s half the battle. Where do I put this information in so that it actually goes in and stays somewhere? Once you learn those aspects of teaching, it makes it very easy to move on and keep making progress.

And I like ELA! It comprises not only the reading element but also the writing and the spelling, and it really has all the individual nuances for the English. I want the students to make connections; I want them to see that it works together. I think so often we segment things out and then you expect the children to make the connections. I think if you connect everything together to begin with, then it really makes sense for them.

Ms. Lee has familiarized herself with the Singapore math curriculum as and appreciates seeing that same approach used in math as well—making real-world connections to numbers. Math for this cohort of 33 total students, by the way, is taught by Ms. Klusewitz as is science.


As mentioned, although Ms. Lee is a veteran educator and teaching is very important to her, she has other sides and has many interests. “I guess the one thing that parents should know about me is that I am a parent, and I have been there, done that. But I have many facets. I really enjoy design work and color and art pieces, so that’s a love of mine as well. I also enjoy being on the water, especially the ocean. It’s my place to regroup and recharge.”

IMG_0714She spends much of each summer in Maine, where she bakes cheddar biscuits, blueberry crisp, and the like for her best friend’s retail shop. “I’m the comedy relief,” says Ms. Lee. “When I arrive, everyone goes, ‘she’s baaaack’!”When it’s time for her “to come back to reality,” she enjoys cooking in her spare time and has a to-die-for tequila lime shrimp. Let’s hope she makes an appearance at a TNCS pot luck!

With or without your blueberry crisp  in tow, Ms. Lee, welcome to the TNCS community!

 

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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TNCS’s Annual Elementary and Middle School Back-to-School Night: Your Source for Need-to-Know Info for the 2019–2020 Academic Year!

Now that summer has unofficially ended, and school is back in full swing, The New Century School kicked off the 2019–2020 school year with its annual Back-to-School Night on Thursday, September 5th. The focus of the evening was to meet your student’s teachers and to present the student’s daily schedule, a curriculum overview, and school policies. In other words, students have had 2 weeks to acclimate—now it’s our turn! However, many parents were not able to attend, so this post will outline some of the more important bits of information you’ll need to get ensure a great year ahead.

As TNCS enters its 10th year, it’s worth noting how the school and its programs have expanded and grown to what they are today. Changes each year are inevitable, but TNCS has stayed true to its identity and has successfully weathered those changes, transforming would-be obstacles into opportunities and continuing to grow the student body.

An overview of tips and policies is given here, and specific documents can also be downloaded accessed via the TNCS Parent Hub (as well as Blackbaud—see more info below).

Welcome to the 2019–2020 School Year!

The evening began in the gymnasium of building north with Head of School Shara Khon Duncan warmly welcoming parents, new and returning: “It’s nice to see all of your faces again—welcome,” she began. She next introduced the new staff and elementary and middle school teachtncs-back-to-school-night-2017ers, who then returned to their classrooms to prepare for the group breakouts by division. (Immersed will profile Suzannah Hopkins, Admissions; Lindsey Sandkuhler, K–1; Loretta Lee, 2–3; and Daphnee Hope, 7–8 in the annual “Meet the Teacher” series so you can get to know them better.) Chef Danielle provided tasty refreshments for attendees.IMG_2827 copy

Sra. Duncan then addressed the parent audience and presented four primary points about this school year at TNCS.

Blackbaud Comes to TNCS

Never fear, it’s not a swashbuckling pirate! Blackbaud is a brand-new student information platform rolling out for the new school year. Led by Sra. Duncan, TNCS had been on a quest for an effective, efficient system for more than a year, and Blackbaud rose to the top after a thorough vetting process. Said Sra. Duncan,”with a student information system, we should be able to get information about a student; make queries within the database; and, most importantly, we should be able to communicate with families.” Sra. Duncan gave well-deserved props to Karin Cintron for setting up Blackbaud and getting it out to parents.

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In addition to everything Blackbaud will make easier to accomplish from an administrative perspective, like admissions, re-enrollment, and so on, the parent experience will be greatly enhanced as well. The system houses class pages, an interactive calendar, community groups for networking (e.g., class parents, Parent Council, volunteering), resource boards, a newsfeed, links to Family ID and other sites, and more. Throughout this school year and as parents get familiar with it, Blackbaud will become the go-to for just about everything school related. “No more digging back through emails to find out what concert attire is supposed to be,” said Sr. Duncan. “It’ll all be there for you in one convenient location.”

The rollout will continue in a piecemeal fashion, as TNCS administration recognizes that too much change all at once can be overwhelming. This initiative is to help make school processes easier, after all. “I really want everyone to buy in to Blackbaud as our primary communications tool,” said Sra. Duncan. “However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t email a teacher—please continue to do so. Blackbaud is more for our school-wide points of business.”

Communication: It’s Not Just Talk

Speaking of communication, this brings us to Sra. Duncan’s second topic. “Last year was my first year as Head of School, and I learned a lot. One thing was the importance of communication. I really want to beef up communication with parents, but that’s a two-way  endeavor.” She urges parents to speak up when they have a concern, not to wait around and let a situation get out of hand or cause bad feelings. “If something’s bothering you, please let us know,” she said. “It’s better for all of us if we can address a problem from the outset and possibly make a difference. You’re not bugging us—these are your children. We’re supposed to be working together.”

Sra. Duncan has a way of getting to the heart of a matter! Keep the lines of communication open through emails, phone-calls, conferences . . . but preferably not during drop-off.

Carline: Ins and Outs

And that brings us to the third topic of the evening: drop-off and pick-up. The most important take-away here is safety. There are children and adults walking about, and their safety is paramount. The carline is a wonderfully convenience for parents, but it only works the way it’s supposed to when everyone follows the rules.

Drivers: The speed limit is 5 mph. Not any higher for any reason. Please obey the traffic directors and their signals.

Walkers: Use crosswalks–don’t walk through the parking lot! Drivers are obeying traffic directors and might not see you. The directors themselves might not see you. Do yourself and your child a favor and use the crosswalks!

Double parking: Don’t do it! You might get ticketed, as police officers are really cracking down on that this year. It also causes numerous circulation problems and causes frustration for TNCS’s neighbors. What is double parking? It can mean temporarily parking next to a legally parked car and leaving your car with the hazard lights on, but it also applies to leaving your car at all anywhere on the street that isn’t a designated parking spot. “It gums up the system,” said Sra. Duncan.

Obey traffic laws: For example, avoid blocking the intersection of Ann and Aliceanna streets.

You may have noticed that Sra. Duncan is no longer directing exiting traffic. Unfortunately, not to mention unacceptably, she was nearly hit three times last year and is not willing to repeat that risk. “I love my life,” she said, “and I would love to continue being Head of The New Century School with my legs intact.”

“I don’t know of any school that has a carline that everyone likes,” said Sra. Duncan, “and it never goes perfectly. But, we all have to work together. We are doing the best that we can to get the students out of the school buildings and into your cars. So, your patience is really important and appreciated.”

Grades Get Real

“I saw way too many high grades last year,” began Sra. Duncan. “While you might think, ‘great—that’s awesome!’, it’s really not. High grades are great only if they are truly earned.” So, she met with teachers to make sure everyone has a clear understanding of what the grades mean. How are children earning their As, Es, and 1s? Indiscriminately serving out high grades now will not serve students well when they move on to high school, and reality sets in. “One, we’re not setting our students up for success with this approach,” continued Sra. Duncan, “and two, we certainly don’t want to get the reputation that we inflate grades.” She also pointed out that students will not try harder if they have already achieved the pinnacle of success. “They need room to grow, something to work toward. There’s room to grow in a B, and it means that teachers will be working with your child in those specific areas.”

“Please don’t panic if you see some honest grades come home. We really want to do what’s best for our students.” Inflate gate deflated! Homeroom teachers will provide more information on grading rubrics.


And that was the gist of Back-to-School Night. More homeroom-specific information will be communicated by teachers, via Blackbaud, and from Class Parents. Enjoy your school year!

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!

Got Middle Schoolers? Navigating High School Choice in Baltimore

With The New Century School on the verge of graduating its first class of 8th-graders, what comes next—that is, high school—looms large. Fortunately, that cohort is squared away thanks in large part to the efforts of Curriculum Coordinator cum High School Liaison Adriana DuPrau.

How to raise healthy, happy older children in downtown Baltimore is foremost on the minds of many city parents, however, if the turnout at Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance (DBFA)’s recent “Meet the Big Kids” event is any indication. On Wednesday, May 15th, DBFA hosted their annual presentation in a new format. For 2019, the event was held at Mother’s FedHill Grille, and DBFA provided food for parents and kids as they socialized prior to the joint presentation by the Fund for Educational Excellence (FFEE) and Heather Stone, Assistant Principal at Afya Public Charter School on navigating school choice for middle and high school. Staff from Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS) was also on hand to answer questions during the presentation. While the presentation was happening, the “Big Kids” helped out by interacting with the younger students, answering their questions and being their heroes. Families were encouraged to stick around afterward to socialize and ask questions of the older students. Said Tony Stephens, DBFA’s Executive Director, “[Younger children] will have the chance to meet other children who have gone ahead of them, while parents will also learn what important steps they can take toward preparing for and navigating the selection process to middle and high school.”

So, if you weren’t in attendance but are curious (or even stressed) about how high school choice happens in Baltimore, not to mention how downtown parents manage “without yards, two-car garages, and shopping malls,” read on—Immersed breaks it all down! (Note that the focus will be on public high school options.)

What School Choice Means

To start with, Baltimore is unique in “matching” students to schools much like is done for medical students looking for a residency hospital. There are few neighborhood-zoned schools remaining. All 8th-graders pick five schools and rank them according to preference, then make their choice among those that awarded acceptance based on application, portfolio, or audition. It’s a bit complicated, but it means that your child goes to school where he or she wants to, which must make a dramatic difference in the overall high school experience. A few schools do offer a lottery-based acceptance.

high-school-choice

The high school process is not easy, according to parents and kids alike, but it’s well worth it—moreover you’re amply prepared for it in middle school; every school has a liaison dedicated to helping families through the process of applying to high schools.  Public choices are comparatively slim, but those we do have are actually pretty great. Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Baltimore City College, Baltimore School for the Arts, and Western High School, for example, are current or past Blue Ribbon schools nearly universally considered outstanding.

You’re probably asking yourself the logical next question: If my student has to apply and is competing for a limited number of spots at a given school, what are our chances of success? According to FFEE, for the last 5 years, students have been placed in their first- or second-choice school 70%–76% of the time. Encouraging, yes, but just how is that possible? As one dad explained it, the available spots in the top schools are enough to ensure that kids in the upper quartiles of eligibility will land one. “The fact that you’re here, concerned about your child’s education,” he continued, “says your child stands a pretty good chance.” Don’t worry—we will go over just what goes into eligibility.

Getting Ready: Managing the Timeline

Managing the preparation timeline is important, because key dates cannot be missed. BCPS advises starting to plan for high school in 7th grade, so here’s what to keep on your radar. No later than October of your child’s 8th-grade year, begin researching schools and attending open houses and shadow days. You probably know by now who your high school liaison is at your child’s middle school, but find out if not. As mentioned, that ministering angel at TNCS is Mrs. DuPrau. Make an appointment with the liaison to discuss options and get help with registering for open houses and shadow days.

The difference? Open houses provide an opportunity to see the school and meet staff, often when school is not in session. Shadow days, on the other hand, allow students to experience the school first hand by going through a typical school day along with a currently enrolled student.

Making Choices

Given your child’s individual talents and strengths will help you find the right school. Use DBFA’s handout to start evaluating and narrowing choices. Choosing a school is based on academic as well as many nonacademic aspects, and you and your child will make the choice based on what’s right for you and your circumstances. The number one piece of advise here is: Make sure your #1 choice is truly your #1 choice, and so on down through the ranks.

high-school-choice

Back to that timeline, in November, your child will get his or her first-quarter report card. This is the final grading period that will become part of your child’s composite score. Composite score??? Take a deep breath; it’s actually not as terrifying as it sounds.

Composite Scores

Most Baltimore public high schools will be looking at the composite score to determine a student’s eligibility. This is made up of final report card grades from each quarter of 7th grade; first-quarter grades from 8th grade, as mentioned above; and standardized test score. This could be the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test and the iReady and, possibly (depending on your target schools), the Independent School Entrance Examination (ISEE).

Note that for TNCS students, Mrs. DuPrau has an important piece of news: “TNCS will begin using the iReady curriculum in both reading and math next school year, 2019–2020. This will help support our existing curriculum and help better prepare students to take the iReady exam in the fall that will be a part of their composite score,” she said. Also new for the 2019–2020 school year, it will be mandatory for all TNCS middle school students to take the requisite standardized tests. “This will help with practicing taking the test,” explained Mrs. DuPrau, “and some schools actually look at your test scores from 7th and 8th grade.” Current TNCS 8th-graders agree that this practice will be very helpful for the future middle schoolers facing this transition to high school. They also urge their successors to start prepping early!

Attendance in 8th grade may also be factored in but isn’t always. In addition, each school weights aspects of the score differently, depending on the thrust of the school (i.e., science or art driven). Important points to bear in mind about composite scores include:

  • Composite scores consist of final course grades from 7th grade, standardized test percentile, 1st-quarter grades in 8th grade, 8th grade attendance (sometimes).
  • There are a total of schools seven that require a composite score: Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Baltimore City College, Carver Vocational-Techmical High School, Edmondson Westside High School, Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, and Western High School.
  • Minimum composite scores range from 475 to 610. In 2018, however, Poly’s lowest-scoring admission was 701.4; City’s was 672.6.
  • The minimum composite score does not guarantee admission. Eligible students are admitted by highest rank.

Citywide Choice Application

A “citywide” school does not have an attendance zone and serves students all over the city. You may choose to apply to schools in or near your neighborhood, or, you may apply farther afield, in which case, free transportation services may be available. This is where the “choice” in citywide choice becomes apparent because you are not limited by city region to what schools are available to your child.

But then again, you do have to apply. This application is where you rank your five choices, again, in order of importance. It can be submitted to the school by the liaison, completed online, or mailed to the Office of Enrollment Choice and Transfers.

Note that some schools do not require a composite score, and admission is determined by lottery if the number of applicants exceeds the number of available spots.

The takeaway message here is to get that application in and verify that it made it on time. What happens if you don’t? Your student will still be able to attend high school, don’t worry, but will face a Round 2 application period. During Round 2, even fewer optimal spots will be available, having already been snatched up in Round 1.

Types of Programs

Baltimore has choices. BCPS advises, “Think about who you are, what interests you, and what motivates you to go to school in the morning.”

Ingenuity Project

Then there’s Poly’s Ingenuity Project, a free, STEM-based, highly accelerated and challenging curriculum. Applying for this program means you’ll be jumping through a few extra hoops: there is an additional application usually due in December of the 8th-grade year, applicants must rank Poly as their #1 choice on the Citywide Choice Schools Application, and they must take the Ingenuity Ability Test in January of their 8th-grade year.

Work-Readiness Programs

Baltimore is home to many Career & Technology Education (CTE) schools as well as graduating high school with an Associates degree in a P-TECH school, both of which ready graduates for the workforce and easing the transition to it.

Charter Schools

Charter schools are yet another option, and these are independently operated. They may, therefore, have different approaches to instruction. Visit each school’s website for details on application requirements. They may hold a lottery if applications exceed spots, but know that neighborhood children will get priority placement.

Key Dates Wrap-Up

  • 7th-Grade school year: Keep those grades up and absences down!
  • October of 8th-grade year: Attend Open Houses and Shadow Days to start your selection process.
  • Fall of 8th-grade year: Take applicable standardized tests.
  • Early December of 8th-grade year: Consider attending the annual Choice Fair at the Baltimore Convention Center.
  • Mid-December of 8th-grade year: Ingenuity Project application is due (if applicable).
  • Early-Mid January of 8th-grade year: Take the Ingenuity Ability Test (if applicable).
  • Late-Mid January of 8th-grade year: School Choice Application is due.
  • Late January of 8th-grade year: Audition for Baltimore School for the Arts (if applicable).
  • Early March of 8th-grade year: Look for a letter from BCPS telling you what high schools you were placed in.
  • Late April of 8th-grade year: Submit your Statement to Decline High School Choice Placement of the schools you opt out of (probably because you got your #1 choice!).

Reeling from all of this info? DBFA plans to host the Meet the Big Kids program again in the fall. Also, BCPS has created a handy guide to school choice that you can download here. Ultimately, said presenter Ms. Stone, “if you have a student in 4th grade or younger, focus on getting good the best education possible. In 5th grade on, really focus on grades and readiness for standardized assessment. After you get through 7th grade, it’s time to start homing in on your high school choice. If you chunk it up that way, it becomes a little bit more manageable.”