TNCS Head of School Erika Johnson Shares Her Thoughts on the New School Year!

Although September has a way of overwhelming us all, the 2023–2024 school year got off to a remarkably smooth start at The New Century School. This is due in no small part to Head of School Erika Johnson, who worked through the summer to ensure that TNCS was ready for another fantastic year of teaching, learning, and experiencing.

It’s All About the Three Cs

In her second year as Head of School, Ms. Johnson says she comes to this year with “fresh eyes”:

Last year it was all new, and this year I’m finding that there’s still more to unearth. There’s no way to know a place and all the people and parts in a year; last year was learning all of the parts, and now we’re able to see relationships and how the system works together. So I think we’re going into year 2 with a better understanding, and we’ll continue to unpack it as well as bring new things.

Even with new things on the horizon (a school is a dynamic place, and change is inevitable—and good!), Ms. Johnson strives for continuity among the flux.

Growth can only come with some consistency, and so I’m excited about the leadership team and the amazing, brilliant individuals I get to work with every day. I think that that will mean a lot for our student body and their ability to feel connected because  they are constantly growing and changing, and it’s our responsibility to create some stability for them. Having a consistent leadership team will allow the students to grow and develop even more. We also have much of the same faculty and staff returning, which also means consistency. In the K1 classroom, for example, if you came in as a kindergartener last year, as a first-grader this year, you’re going to have the same teachers. So those students will not have to make a big transition, and I’m very  grateful for the faculty and staff for returning and maintaining the commitment to the student body.

If a theme is emerging here, it’s no accident. One of Ms. Johnson’s superpowers (yes, she has more than one) is the ability to weave together loose threads into a cohesive whole. Her mission during the last school year at TNCS was to strengthen and sustain the TNCS community. This year, that resolve has not wavered, and she knows that the right people are in place to continue this work, both from the inside as well as off campus with the Family Partnership committee. Her mantra? “Building community, building capacity, building curriculum.”

Building Community

Carrying over from some of the work put in last year, Ms. Johnson says, “building community really is about building a community of learners in each classroom and a community of learners for each division. The New Century School is made up of a preschool division and a K through 8 division; the hope is that we we are building learning communities in both of those divisions who are able to work together to uphold the portrait of a graduate that we introduced last year and really become citizens in in each of those communities.”

“In the spirit of building community,” she explains, “we are introducing what I’m calling ‘Wellness Work’.” This wellness work is almost anything outside of the core academic classes that is designed to nurture the “Whole Child,” such as advisory for social/emotional enrichment, racial literacy classes, and health and human sexuality. “We’re offering these opportunities more consistently this year and connecting them under one umbrella. TNCS is committed to the development of personhood.” What are communities composed of, after all?

As for how the school year is going so far, Ms. Johnson feels positive about it. The litmus test for her is whether students are happy. “When the kids first arrived, there were lots of hugs and smiles and hanging out. That good camaraderie leads to good communities. I also think our teachers are off to a strong start, and I’m cranking out as much as I can each day to provide support to them.”

Building Capacity

Some of the more wonderful aspects of TNCS are not easily achieved, although they may appear to happen as if by magic to onlookers. The differentiated education is one (of many); multiage classrooms are another. Ms. Johnson has the ability to take concepts and practically apply them. In so doing, she is giving faculty and staff the tools they need to make the “magic” happen. “I’m focused on really building the capacity of our faculty and staff so that they are able to allow each child to approach the content in an individual way, without feeling like they have to create a lesson plan for each child. There’s a real craft to teaching, and I want to honor that,” she said.

Building capacity cuts both ways—both teachers and students need the capacity to optimally fulfill their respective roles. As such, one tenet of the TNCS student that Ms. Johnson will be drilling down on this year is executive functioning skills. For 8th-graders, the ultimate goal of honing these skills is high-school preparedness. “We’re deeply committed to making sure that each of our 8th-graders is enrolled in the high school of their choice next fall, and that means meeting with them, hearing them, and helping them understand the application process,” she explained.

The rest of the student body will not be left behind in this regard, of course.

Teachers are explicitly teaching attention, organization, and self monitoring. They have a rubric to track students over the course of the week and give them a grade based on whether the particular skill is emerging, developing, or mastered. Many people don’t think about metacognition—they don’t think about their thinking. It’s not until somebody points it out that you’re able to acknowledge, ‘yes I have a pattern, and in order for me to break that pattern I have to monitor my thinking and my emotions’. We are asking children to self-monitor all day long, so we have to help them develop the awareness of how their brains are functioning. When they understand their own patterns, they better appreciate the need to shift their thinking or adopt a strategy to be more productive, concentrate a little longer, or even remember to bring a pencil to class. There are things that are out of our control, but then there are things that are within our control. By helping students to understand that early, we’ll create very dynamic and powerful lifelong learners.

Students, meanwhile, are using weekly planners that teachers help them fill out at the start of the week and offer reminders about at the end of class. Teachers are asking families to initial the planner at the end of the day to say that they have seen what their student completed. “Hopefully this will create a bridge of communication between what’s happening in the classroom and what’s happening at home,” said Ms. Johnson.

All of this meshes superbly with the Montessori foundation of independent learning that underpins TNCS.

Building Curriculum

Curriculum is also getting a sprucing up. “We have a real focus on curriculum this year and solidifying lesson plans as well as what content area we’re covering and the approach to covering it. We’re also going to continue with the racial literacy taught in the Pollyanna Curriculum and really understanding each other a little better,” said Ms. Johnson.

In fact, one more new thing that Ms. Johnson has embarked on this year is pursuit of an Education Doctorate (EdD) through American University. With all three of her children in college, she converted one room to a home office for her studies. “I’m really excited about how I’m going to be able to take what I am actively learning in the classroom and apply it to the challenges and the triumphs of TNCS,” she said. “To bring that knowledge back in a tangible way to, again, build community, build capacity, build curriculum.”

“We’re All Teachers, All Learners”

If you’re wondering how she makes time for all of the important work she does (remember those superpowers alluded to earlier?), to her, it’s more about a mindset. “You can’t ask students to do things that you’re not willing to do,” she explained. “Modeling is the strongest educator because people have to be able to see it. We model it, then I think it inspires, encourages, and nurtures our students. For example, I’ve challenged all of the administrators to sit in on the Spanish classes, so we’re all also learning the language alongside students. It’s the nerd in me.” A beautiful corollary here is that this modeling is teaching students to model, which is important in a school where mixed-age classrooms and inquiry-led education provide opportunities for students to be both explorers and teachers.

“We all must be teachers,” said Ms. Johnson.

TNCS 2nd- and 3rd-Graders Go Places with Teacher Sarah Weiskopf!

The New Century School values what each individual member of the community brings to the beautiful whole. This is no less true for TNCS teachers, who are, after all, helping introduce young humans to the world and what it offers. Their unique perspectives incrementally broaden students’ horizons and ignite the passion for exploration.

For TNCS grades 2 and 3 English Language Arts and Global Studies teacher Sarah Weiskopf, this is a deeply held tenet.

I really believe in guiding the student toward self-construction, showing them where the tools are, so they can kind of teach themselves. In the Montessori way, you put things out, you give a lesson, and you inspire students toward learning. In that inspiration toward learning, they actually are making themselves into whole human beings. So I like to just be the guide and kind of step back and allow that knowledge and exploration to unfold.

How Sarah Weiskopf Came to TNCS

Ms. Weiskopf started teaching at TNCS in the 2021–2022 school year. She is about to commence her third year at TNCS and is even helping out with summer camp in the meantime.

But she traveled a few dozen thousands of miles to get here. To start this journey from the beginning, Ms. Weiskopf attended Skidmore College, a liberal arts college in Saratoga Springs, NY, for her undergraduate degree. After an on-campus job in the dining hall taught her that food service was definitely not her thing, she began working in a preschool and loves that experience.

She bookmarked that for a bit, not yet certain that teaching children was her avocation, and moved to Prague in the Czech Republic in 2013. There, while teaching English as a second language to adults, she realized that she preferred teaching younger students after all. So, she interviewed at the International Montessori School of Prague as an ELA support teacher and was hired. “Then someone in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd classroom was leaving temporarily, and I took over in that classroom as the assistant,” she explains. “I fell in love with the theory behind Montessori, and watching it in practice was really inspiring.”

She lived in Prague for 3 more years, then made a pit stop in Southeast Asia to do some teaching-subsidized travel there. When she returned to the United States, she had a goal: earning a Master’s degree in Montessori Education. So, instead of going home to her native town of Pittsburgh, PA, she arrived in Baltimore to enroll at Loyola University Maryland. She took a slight detour back to food service to support herself through graduate school, waiting tables and bartending.

With her Master’s degree in hand, Ms. Weiskopf has been teaching for several years. She decided to remain in Baltimore, which is close enough to Pittsburgh to see her family regularly, and bought a house here last year. She taught in Baltimore City and Baltimore County private schools for a bit, but, when the pandemic hit, some of her students’ parents approached her about leading an at-home school in Monkton. She had a cohort of 13 students in grades 1st through 7 and taught all subjects (with the help of an employees she brought on to help out with the upper-level math. They did most teaching and learning outdoors. “In the winter, we had a little garage space that we worked in with space heaters,” she recounts. “We did a lot of hands-on learning. For instance, the kids were really into biking, so I taught the 7th-graders how to use power tools, and they  built bike ramps and little bridges on the property. That was a blast!”

Ms. Weiskopf at TNCS

When in-person school was about to start back up, Ms. Weiskopf got the call to interview at TNCS, having been recommended as a candidate by a teacher friend. Although she misses teaching all subjects and having her students all day long (à la Montessori and her pandemic pod experiences), she is enjoying her time here and especially appreciates her co-teacher Swati Mehta. “She and I are really able to share ideas back and forth and collaborate,” said Ms. Weiskopf. “We are so in sync at this point that it’s just second nature working with her. So I really love the ability to have a co-teacher in that capacity.”

And for you, TNCS parents, she wants you to know that your involvement is most welcome.

The part of the job that I love the most, actually, is parent/teacher relationships. I really see teaching as a partnership between me and the students’ parents or  family members. I can’t do my work without their involvement; they can’t do their work as parents without my involvement. So I really do think that we are a team. I’m an open book, and I really want parents and family members to come and ask questions, see lessons, and really be involved.

Outside of TNCS

Although teaching requires a monumental amount of energy, commitment, and care, Ms. Weiskopf finds plenty of latitude for extracurricular activities: “I like to spend time with my fiancé hiking, biking, and walking our dog Phoebe. We love to travel and go camping as often as we are able! We have a workshop in our basement for home renovation and DIY projects. We most recently built a coffee table.”

Wait—fiancé? You read that correctly; besides starting her third year at TNCS, Ms. Weiskopf has another big event to look forward to: she is getting married in December! As the seasoned traveler you are, we know you will fare very well on that upcoming journey!

TNCS Bids a Fond Farewell to the Class of 2023!

Another first has just transpired at The New Century School: the first-ever student to start at the then-brand-new TNCS campus at age 2 and ascend all the way through the preprimary, primary, elementary, and middle school divisions has just graduated 8th grade. Yes, the class of 2023 has done it: they are high school bound. They are TNCS’s fourth graduating class.

This school year at TNCS has been a transformative one, and, as TNCS Head of School Erika Johnson eloquently stated at Wednesday’s 8th-grade graduation ceremony, endings are really only beginnings. One chapter closes to allow another to open. This is true not just for the 2023 TNCS graduates, but also for the school itself. Refer to the retrospective post to revisit all the heights scaled, victories achieved, and obstacles hurdled in TNCS’s first 13 years as a school, and then just reflect back on this 2022–2023 school year to really see TNCS coming into its own. We owe this to all of the vision; love; nurturing; energy; passion; and, yes, sometimes, headaches, that go into founding and then sustaining a school from TNCS community members both past and present.

Class of 2023 Ceremony

As always, the ceremony was heartwarming and bittersweet, engendering as many (joyful) tears as smiles. The graduates were dressed in white from head to toe, with bright yellow sashes around their shoulders. They were resplendent.

TNCS Dean of Student Support Alexis Boyd was Master of Ceremonies, while speakers included Head of School Erika Johnson with the commencement address and other beautiful speeches from TNCS Music Director Martellies Warren as well as from various TNCS students. The graduating 8th-graders passed the baton to the rising 8th-graders, and the rising 8th-graders to the rising 6th-graders (who very, very solemnly “accepted”). Ms. Johnson’s ask of the graduates is that they move through their next chapters as “trustworthy,” “steadfast,” and “true” human beings. They fervently promised to do so, one of many very touching moments.

Some rousing musical performances followed, and then each student gave a bouquet of flowers to their teachers, who were sitting opposite from them on the stage. Finally, each student was presented with their graduation certificate and had a photo op with Ms. Johnson on stage. At this point, smiles had reached maximum width! For your viewing pleasure, here are the wonderful photos gathered from parents, Ms. Boyd, and even some students.

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Scholarly Pursuits

With this post, we also want to share TNCS’s accomplishments from a different perspective—that of the graduates themselves. They’ve been active participants in not only blossoming within its walls but also in shaping the school from the inside out. So let’s hear it from them! They are each true TNCS originals.

From DM

My fondest memory at TNCS is this one time where me and [M] would ‘go to the bathroom’ and stay outside for like 15 minutes, thinking we were so cool. Some VERY found memories that involved me getting into trouble include me stealing Kate’s gel pens and REFUSING to admit I did it, stealing [I’s] squishy toys and iPod, and the uh…van incident (I’m so glad I am not that type of troublemaker anymore). Every second hanging out with the 4th and 5th grade classes was incredible. All of them were like my long lost cousins, and felt like a second family. The amount of times we burst out laughing and supporting each other through our hardships will forever warm my heart.

From CH

One of my favorite memories from TNCS was when the 7th and 8th grade classes went to Puerto Rico. This was such a special experience and to be on vacation with all of my friends was something I wasn’t expecting to happen. I will always remember this trip.

From KW

Whether it was playing games at recess, having hotdog eating contests at the Spring Fest, or us goofing off during dismissal, there was never a dull moment with these 8th-graders!

From NM

Coming into my 8th grade year, I didn’t expect much. I was ready to get over this grade level and go on to the next. I didn’t expect to meet the people I did. This year hasn’t been the greatest, but I don’t think I would change it. Maybe some bits, but I really am grateful for the time I have had. I remember graduation, and my parents got the time wrong so they came after the event. I told Ms. Boyd and Mrs. Johnson, and at first I thought they were joking when they brought up the idea to redo the graduation for my parents to see, but to my surprise they weren’t. We redid the graduation, and I think that’s one of the nicest things someone did for me. So in other words I really am grateful for the time I was given at The New Century School.

From DD

My fondest memory was when I went on the Superman when we were on a field trip to Six Flags, I was excited to go on the ride and I enjoyed it 😄!

Editor’s Note: More quotes will be added as they come in. Some students were not ready for more homework so soon after graduating 😅🎓! Indeed, we owe a very special thanks to CH and KW for collecting the student quotes!

Meet the Teacher: Swati Mehta!

Immersed is catching up on profiles of teachers who joined The New Century School during the pandemic. This post, though overdue, is no less important in introducing members of the community in an in-depth way!

Introducing Swati Mehta!

Swati Mehta joined TNCS in the fall of 2020 as a kindergarten teacher. In 2021, she took over one of the grades 2 and 3 classrooms. “The 2/3 classroom has a lot of high-energy friends who are curious about the world,” she said. “They have an opinion about everything and are like mini teenagers that way. It’s a lot of fun. I saw a lot of that same enthusiasm in the K/1 classroom, but these 2/3 students have the independence and helpfulness of older children who are more self-sufficient.”

Ms. Mehta is native to the area, born and raised in Baltimore County, where she attended public school. She graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1995 and went on to pursue a college degree at Loyola University. From there, it was back into the Baltimore County public school system, this time to teach. “I’ve pretty much been in education from 1999 to now and have taught kindergarten and preschool as well as tech integration for K through grade 5 in which I basically was teaching teachers and students how to integrate computers into their everyday learning,” she explained.

Ms. Mehta at TNCS

Now that she’s at TNCS, her main subjects have been the global studies curriculum and the Singapore math curriculum. Her co-teacher is Sarah Weisskopf, who teaches ELA and global studies. The 2nd- and 3rd-graders also study Spanish with Señora Noletto, Chinese with Peng Laoshi, science with Mr. B, art with Ms. Devon, and music with Mr. Warren.

Having spent so long in the public school sphere, Ms. Mehta says she welcomes being in the very different independent school environment for two primary reasons:

It’s a good different. The sizes of the classes are much smaller, and teachers have more autonomy to basically go ahead and meet the needs of the child where they are. We might have fewer resources, but we can be more creative with what we do with our students.

She goes on to explain that she brings her perspective of having been on both sides of the classroom to her teaching approach. “I’ve taught for 20 years, but I also remember what it was like to struggle as a student. I know that anxiety a student can have when they’re trying to learn math and to think, ‘This is something that’s really hard; I’ll never understand it’. Having been there, I can reassure them that even if they don’t learn it today, one day they will.”

To ensure continuity for students throughout their math trajectories, Ms. Mehta engages in planning both for incoming students with K/1 teacher Charlotte Longchamps and to prepare her outgoing students for their next phase with Ms. Sharma. This also helps sustain the individualized curriculum—the levels where her students are learning span a large range, with some learning as high as late 5th-grade math. This interdivisional collaboration makes sure teachers are supported and students stay engaged! It’s also a key piece of the TNCS ethos, insofar as TNCS hopes to educate students from age 2 through 8th grade. The throughlines that teachers create in this way mean that students are met where they are and not shoehorned into a chronology that does not serve them.

An interesting sidebar to Ms. Mehta’s math teaching is that it was somewhat accidental:

I started at TNCS as a K/1 teacher, but staffing changes opened up a 2/3 class, and I agreed to take it. Math is something that was a challenge for me growing up, but I actually love teaching it to students, especially the lower elementary math because it’s building those concepts and showing students strategies of how they can be successful at, for example adding, subtracting, and multiplying. We didn’t have a lot of these strategies when we were all growing up—we kind of just did a standard algorithm for some subtraction and addition where you borrow and cross out. Now there are so many different ways of doing it.

Speaking of the many different ways to learn math, Ms. Mehta incorporates manipulatives, drawing, and using dry erase markers in her classroom to help understand how to solve challenging problems.

Global studies, on the other hand, is no accident. “Global studies is an extension of something that I love. If I was going to be a middle school or high school teacher, I always say I would do history. History is a giant story; it’s the story of humanity.” Shown are photos from a tropical fruit tasting party when her class learned about India.

As for her time so far at TNCS, Ms. Mehta says she loves so many things about this special little school. “We’re like a family. We teachers all support one another when we have tough days, and we celebrate together when we have good days. We lean on each other. And we all eat lunch together including with our students, who we get to talk with in a different way while we eat together. I tell my students, ‘Even if you won’t be in my classroom next year, once you’re my student, you’re always my student’.”

Ms. Mehta is not only a very caring and nurturing teacher, she’s also a parent with a 14-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son. With both these hats on, she wants you to know, TNCS community, that she sees your student. “I’m a parent and a native of Baltimore, so I know that students have certain needs and challenges that they may need help with. I see the child with all their nuances. I think a parent’s fear can be that their child won’t be fully seen by the teacher and is just a number.”

In addition to her two children, Ms. Mehta says her family expands during certain times of the year when either hers or her husband’s parents come visit from India. When not hosting extended family or teaching math, she enjoys hiking and photography. She even runs the TNCS photography club after school, taking students on walks around Fells Point to snap pictures. On her own time, though, the setting might be a bit more relaxing.

Spring at TNCS: Renewal, Blossoming, and Song

The season of spring at The New Century School is poignant in so many ways. While spring reawakens us and our surrounding environment, bringing everything back to life, it also represents a time of completion and of endings at TNCS. The school year draws to a close, and students will be moving on to what comes next in their academic journeys, whether that’s transitioning from one division to the next, like preprimary to primary or primary to elementary, or graduating middle school and leaving TNCS for high school.

At the beginning of the 2022–2023 school year, TNCS Head of School Erika Johnson established a goal: One school, One program, One community. Now, we get to see how the seeds she planted and nurtured throughout the year have blossomed.

Mother’s Day/Caregiver’s Day Celebration

One of the best representations of TNCS unity is the Mother’s Day/Caregiver’s Day Celebration, in which each classroom (or division) hosts a luncheon for moms and caregivers, providing a much-loved opportunity for parents to mingle with their children in their actual habitat. This long-held TNCS tradition is as special for students as it is for their parents.

Kindergarten through Grade 3

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TNCS Spring Concert

Another thing that Ms. Johnson did at the very beginning of the school year was to bring beloved Music Director Martellies Warren back into the TNCS fold. And if there’s one thing Mr. Warren does right (okay, he does everything right), it’s the TNCS Spring Concert!

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