At The New Century School, Curriculum Specialist Adriana DuPrau is always looking for ways to effectively engage students in their learning. One long-standing method is the i-Ready platform, which TNCS adopted several years back to help teachers assess the math and reading areas their students might need additional support in, personalize their learning, and monitor their progress throughout the school year. TNCS teachers immediately appreciate the targeted, individualized instruction i-Ready allows.
The early implementation of i-Ready turned out to be rather prescient, when TNCS students found themselves distance learning nearly a year ago now—fortunately, i-Ready was at the ready, and students were able to continue making their math and reading gains without a hitch! For some families, one thing did change, however, and that is the presence of parents working at home alongside their students. Parents, having seen your children working with i-Ready first hand, many of you have questions about the platform, and that’s what this edition of Immersed hopes to address!
Mrs. DuPrau finds that a commonly expressed concern is that, “Parents feel [i-Ready] isn’t placing their child at the correct level and also find it repetitive. We are hoping to help families feel better or to help educate them on the program.”
Here are three important links where you can find a treasure trove of super helpful information:
But we’ll also walk through some of the key points so you have everything in one place.
Perhaps most importantly, you should know that your participation in this process is not only welcome by TNCS teachers and staff, it is also beneficial for your student. According to i-Ready’s website, “Helping families understand i-Ready and encouraging them to talk with their child about strengths or areas for growth support a growth mindset and student success.”
The first item you’ll want to keep handy is the Family Guide. This is available in English and Spanish as well as other languages. Your students already know much of this information, but you never know when you might need to revisit the basics.
You can also view these helpful videos, available in English and Spanish.
Through all of the pandemic-associated upheaval we’ve seen in 2020, The New Century School has stayed true to its mission to challenge students to realize their richest individual potential through progressive, multilingual education and meaningful participation in the world community.
That has been no small feat. TNCS administration, staff, and faculty rallied together and found innovative ways to keep TNCS open and its students flourishing. Many of those ways happen behind the scenes but are no less vital to TNCS’s success. One of these behind-the-scenes heroes is TNCS Curriculum Coordinator Adriana DuPrau, who has held this position since 2017. Although a lot has changed since then and also since we last checked in with her in early 2019, Mrs. DuPrau still describes her primary role as two-fold: teacher-facing and student-facing. However, this year she has also taken on a bit more of a parent-facing role as well.
Curriculum Coordinating: Teacher-Facing
Mrs. DuPrau acts as a communication liaison between TNCS teachers and Head of School Señora Duncan, filtering teacher requests and untangles snags they might be experiencing to allow them to focus on their day-to-day teaching. “The majority of my time is still working one-on-one with teachers, either coaching them, or figuring how to make their schedules work, or setting up virtual classrooms,” she explained. Speaking of the virtual classrooms, that’s obviously one of the biggest changes this year. “Teachers are working both virtually and in person, which is stressful for them. I can provide an outlet for them to talk it out.” She validates their feelings but also keeps the conversations constructive by steering them toward finding solutions.
She spent the beginning of the year making sure teachers had the curriculum that they need. She researches all of the offerings out there and tries them out to see if a certain program is a good fit. One example is Word Voyage Vocabulary Builder that is designed to help students in Grades 4 and up build and strengthen their vocabulary. Another is Discovery Education, that enhances global studies and science lessons. In past years, watching the webinars and speaking to the company representatives was something of a shared task between Mrs. DuPrau and the teachers, whereas this year, she took on the responsibility of onboarding these new programs to save teachers’ some time. For their part, they were happy to let Mrs. DuPrau make those decisions this year, even though normally their input is such an important part of the process.
Even with all of the advance vetting she does, adopting something new can still be difficult for teachers. “I’m learning that teachers are already so stretched this year that tacking on new information almost seems like dumping. I’m finding that it’s just a different year in general.”
Another new aspect of the curriculum this year is the social justice component, which everyone is excited about. “I’m finding resources to use and organizing them. I’m taking a really fun course to keep my teaching certification up-to-date, where I’m actually able to learn about these new tools and figure out ways to help the teachers without overwhelming them,” said Mrs. DuPrau.
“I also still try to be in the classrooms,” she said. “Not as frequently as I have in the past because I’m trying not to mix in too much with the cohorts, but I’ll jump in on a zoom meeting or be there in the classroom. We have some new teachers, and I want to be present to see in person what’s happening. In this new learning environment, if I want to be able to make suggestions and advocate for teachers, I actually need to see the difficulties, not just hear about them.”
Curriculum Coordinating: Student-Facing
TNCS students, too, are feeling the stress inherent in pandemic-influenced academic life. By and large, though, those resilient youngsters have adapted remarkably well to all of the changes thrown at them. After some initial student hiccups at the beginning of the year, such as with technology, Mrs. DuPrau has lately been able to concentrate on her real passion–working with students who need extra support. “Whether it be giving them more work or figuring out how to help them keep up, I try to help with all dimensions of student life. How can we work with these kids to make sure they are getting what they need?”
One way she has always helped outgoing 8th-graders is by researching schools—going to information nights or signing up for admissions tests—and ensuring that students make all of the associated deadlines. She also spearheaded creating a virtual hangout for them to share their experiences of applying to high school.
As part of what she calls “student life,” the school store is also up and running, and Mrs. DuPrau says she felt that getting more Spirit Days on the calendar would be a boost for students. (TNCS has t-shirts and accessories on sale for our students, teachers, and families at this link!) Such community events are wonderful ways to maintain student engagement, as are the invitations for safe, on-campus activities for virtual learners to optionally participate in and spend some time in person with their cohort.
Another brand-new initiative Mrs. DuPrau just launched is the K–8 Community Classroom, where all sorts of fun things will take place (via the Google Classroom platform), including a Thanksgiving recipe exchange. The recipes shared here may even be compiled in a TNCS cookbook—stay tuned for more updates on that.
The recipe exchange is intended to bring some holiday fun for students to share with their families, but the forum will offer ongoing community-building activities designed to engage all students.
Curriculum Coordinating: Parent-Facing
As mentioned, somewhat of a new role Mrs. DuPrau has adopted this year is acting as a messenger between parents and teachers, sitting in on meetings, for example, and again always trying to be solution based.
“Parents are also feeling stressed and that stress comes in to play in the way they are feeling about how everything’s going,” said Mrs. DuPrau. Normally trivial problems like a technical glitch can bother us to a different degree. “So, in general, I try to keep everybody positive and looking for the good and making sure everyone’s flexible.”
Bringing It Home
With all of the work Mrs. DuPrau does to support TNCS teachers, students, and families, it’s easy to forget that she, too, has a life! This school year has presented challenges for her also. “I think the biggest challenge for me honestly has just been trying to keep everybody’s morale up,” she said. She finds little ways to provide “pick-me-ups” like passing out Halloween candy to teachers (shhhh . . . our little secret) or offering to cover classes. Having been a teacher for many years, she can certainly sympathize with the difficulties they face during this year of hybrid teaching, but she strongly believes that a solution-based attitude is necessary. Again, though, that’s in itself pressure. “My biggest challenge this year has been trying to keep everybody’s spirits up.” Mrs. DuPrau says her husband and dark chocolate provide the pick-me-ups she needs. A “good morning” would also do wonders to start her day off on the right foot!
Mrs. DuPrau sees the education-during-a-pandemic situation from multiple perspectives. She is sympathetic to teachers (some of whom are understandably concerned about returning to school after the Thanksgiving holiday, when students may have traveled or been exposed to more people than usual), as mentioned, but she also thinks TNCS is overall very lucky to be open. Her husband, who is a teacher, would love to be seeing his students in person, but is instead teaching from home and has a 3rd-grader simultaneously learning form home. Here again, she is also extremely sympathetic to overworked parents in similar situations.
“We’re all on the same team,” said Mrs. DuPrau. “We continue to find new ways to celebrate the TNCS community as we look to the future.”
The New Century School welcomed Suzannah Hopkins to take over as Admissions Director for the 2019–2020 school year . . . and then the pandemic hit. Despite having only a few months under her belt as TNCS Admissions Director before schools were ordered to close down, Ms. Hopkins has managed to continue her work from her dining room table—including, believe it or not, introducing TNCS to new prospective families!
But it’s certainly not easy. “It has been a challenge to sell the school, especially since we are wearing even more hats. The common saying among Admissions Directors is,” said Ms. Hopkins, “if we can get them on campus, they’re sold. But I can’t do that! That’s the rub for independent schools right now.”
So how does one showcase a school that can’t operate as a brick-and-mortar enterprise? That’s where TNCS Virtual School comes in to help tell the story. “That’s how people see who we are and what we’re all about,” explained Ms. Hopkins. “I also think that pivoting in our social media is allowing me to direct prospective families to our Facebook page and Immersed to show them virtually since we can’t do it in person. I only have a small window to provide a sense of what the school culture is about, so the social media becomes even more important. I am grateful to our team including Karin Cintron, who did not miss a beat pivoting with me to change our social media focus and creating resource pages on our website such as the new Support for Prospective Parents page.” In addition, the entire brochure package is also now on the website as a pdf.
Other aspects of admissions also needed to be adjusted, such as with the process for prospective students themselves:
We can’t do a shadow visit, so with rising 2nd through 8th graders, I’ll do student and parent interviews, separately or together, but definitely making sure I get to talk to the student. For the younger ones, we’re doing parent interviews, but I’ve been encouraging parents to make sure I have a sighting of the child or even just hear him or her in the background to get a sense of the family dynamic. That part is tricky, though, because kids are so different at home than they are at school, so you’re sort of getting their most comfortable self, and sometimes that can be pretty funny.
Ms. Hopkins says she relies a lot on Zoom these days, as do many of us, and values the ability to be able to connect with people, even if it can’t be in person. “I get so excited to get on a Zoom call and see some new faces,” she said. “Families seem to be feeling the same in terms of enjoying talking to somebody new or outside their own households. I start every call with, ‘How are you doing? How’s it going over at your house?’ Everyone wants to know that someone is thinking about them and feeling a sense of connection. Periodically, I’ll see a child enter the scene, and it’s the same on my end. Anything goes, and it’s all good! The mantra for virtual admissions is flexibility, authenticity, and a whole lot of patience.”
Her efforts to make connections are paying off, and prospective families with students of all ages have been reaching out for information. “Amazingly enough, we’ve gotten signed contracts even though the families don’t get to walk through the halls and hear our students and teachers interacting,” she said. In some ways, this is perhaps not so surprising as parents come to terms with realizing that we have to be ready for whatever the fall is going to look like. Schools in Maryland will not reopen this school year, and options may not be as abundant as they once were.
TNCS on the other hand, moved quickly to get up and running virtually, and has now hit a rhythm with it that seems to work for everyone. I give our faculty and administration a lot of credit for that. With so much uncertainty regarding how schools will reopen, I’m so in awe that we are trying to think of every possible scenario. It’s a whole lot of work to do that and figure out these contingencies. How can we split up this room to maintain smaller groups, for example? Do we have preschool on campus and elementary and middle stay virtual for now? Do we implement A and B days? For now, we’re all in the dark and watching the news together.
Virtual Discover TNCS Events
In addition to operating classrooms virtually, TNCS is offering Virtual Admissions Events. The first took place in April, and a second will take place Wednesday, May 20th from 10:00 am–11:00 am.
“The fact that we’re doing virtual open houses is awesome,” said Ms. Hopkins. “We basically took the in-person event that I did in January and turned it into a Zoom event with updated slides and additions for virtual school. Josh Birenbaum gave the parent perspective, and we had nine prospective families in attendance.” One advantage to doing the event virtually is that people were able to ask questions via chat. One family is now enrolled, and a few others are “in the funnel,” as they say in admissions speak.
This month’s event will take a slightly different format: The first half will be admissions in general, and the second will be about summer camp.
Yes, TNCS Virtual Summer Camp will be a thing! TNCS Aftercare and Summer Camp Director Hannah Brown will handle that portion, with support from Paula Kupersanin and Adriana DuPrau, who are helping to create summer curricula. “It’s been a challenge running our aftercare program from home and preparing for summer camp, under uncertain circumstances,” said Ms. Brown. “But, it has been an opportunity for creative problem-solving, and I’m really proud of what the team has come up with so far.” They are currently working on virtual offerings for K through 8th-grade students. “I think that’s where the demand will be this summer. We’re looking at academic enrichment mornings in math and ELA, and then the afternoons will be geared toward social–emotional learning with specialty camps, like art and physical activity.”
The actual offerings and the final schedule will be available on the TNCS website soon, thanks to the invaluable work by Karin Cintron to get that and registration up and running. “I’m really excited to get the word out to parents,” said Ms. Brown. “We don’t yet have a sense of how many people will register,” she continued.
Right now it’s really a balancing act for families. We want our students to have a high level of readiness for the fall, but what’s especially important to me is for them to have a sense of connectedness this summer and get some social interaction, even if it is remotely. And we really want the experience to be fun, too, whether it’s an academic enrichment or a specialty camp. Every kid’s threshold for how much virtual interaction they can profit from is different. In that spirit, we’re parsing out the day so families can do as much or as little as they need.
What We’re Grateful For
“It’s such a scary time for admissions. The job of an admissions officer is to get students into a school so there are students to teach. Hearing about schools teetering or even having to close is so sad,” said Ms. Hopkins, but she’s not one to end on anything but a positive note. “I’m so grateful that Co-Executive Directors Roberta Faux and Jennifer Lawner are doing everything they can to make sure we’re thriving. Admissions is challenging, but the fact that we’re still getting interest from families and getting them through the pipeline makes me really happy. People are talking about us, and our name is getting out there.”
Then there’s the fact that the fundamental part of her job is still intact—more or less. “My favorite part of my job is getting to meet families and students, and I don’t get to do that in the same way now. I like to be with people—I like to talk and connect. That’s why I like admissions so much.”
Finally, there’s you, TNCS community. “We have such loyal families who have been really supportive during this time; I think it makes all the difference,” said Ms. Hopkins. “I want to thank our current families, and I also want to thank new families for entrusting their children’s futures to us. I really am so grateful for that.”
For the first time in several weeks, Immersed is pleased to bring you a post about something that starts with C-O that is not COVID-19! This week, we return to the halcyon pre-pandemic days when things we used to take for granted, like travel, happened all the time. For 7th- and 8th-grade students at The New Century School, this meant their capstone middle school trip to Costa Rica.
In the nick of time, TNCS students accompanied by homeroom teacher Daphnée Hope and Curriculum Coordinator Adriana DuPrau (who chaperoned the first such trip in 2019), departed Baltimore on March 3rd, destination, San José. The trip was a success from the moment it started—even the flight over was fun! “For example, the flight attendants asked one of the students to come up and share what our school name is and what we were doing,” said Mrs. DuPrau. They returned home on March 8th.
“I loved making Tik Toks with my class!”
On arrival in San José, they met their wonderful driver, Ronald (whom the students affectionately renamed “Ronnie” and then “Uncle Ronnie”). Uncle Ronnie drove them to their first house just outside of San José in the mountainous Cloud Forest region. “We went in first to see how we wanted to set up the kids—two to a room in bunks, boys with boys and girls with girls,” explained Mrs. DuPrau. “Our first house was really nice,” said Mrs. Hope. “It had a big, beautiful yard and dogs, so the kids loved playing outside. They would play tag, play with the dogs, go on a little hike. There wasn’t a TV in the first house, which meant that we were really together. We also took away their phones; they were only allowed to have them to call their parents. This was so the kids actually hung out with each other without that technology barrier. [Mrs. DuPrau] had learned that from prior experience,” she continued.
“Our landlord was so helpful and really wanted to find ways to make it a learning experience for the students, even arranging for us to have a Costa Rican cooking lesson!” said Mrs. DuPrau. “Cooking is one of our funniest memories, and the students still talk about it,” added Mrs Hope.
Legend of the Psycho Sauce
—As recounted by Mrs. Hope with asides from Mrs. DuPrau.
The experience of our first grocery store was pretty awful. I’m a really good cook when I have the right ingredients, but our driver misunderstood when we said we needed groceries but didn’t want to spend a lot of money and took us to a budget store that didn’t have what we expected. We had been traveling since 2:00 a.m., the kids were hungry, and it’s already evening. So, we decide we’ll just make something simple—how about pasta? Well, they didn’t have normal pasta sauce—just little tiny packets of tomato sauce and salsa. Everything’s in Spanish, we were confused, we couldn’t find fresh produce, we’ve never fed 13 people before . . . (that was the hardest part). I find a carrot and what I think is spinach (it wasn’t—I still don’t know what it was) to throw in the sauce because I’m thinking the kids probably need some vegetables. Then, we realized at home we don’t have enough tomato sauce. So, we add in some salsa. It was just disgusting and way too spicy. The kids thought it was so funny—they call it the ‘psycho sauce’.
After tasting it, some students decided they weren’t actually hungry. Others got really silly and blamed it on the psycho sauce. We were all deliriously laughing.
One night we did make really good tacos. We explained to Uncle Ronnie that we needed a different store.
Saint Gregory School Visit
Once they were all settled in to their new digs and (somewhat?) well fed, the group trundled off to their first big adventure—a visit to Saint Gregory, former TNCS teacher Raquel Álvarez’s current school. Sra. Álvarez and her husband Robert are well known to the TNCS community, and Sra. Álvarez and Mrs. DuPrau taught together in the very beginning of TNCS, Sra. Álvarez teaching a preprimary Spanish immersion homeroom as well as Spanish to the kindergarteners, and Mrs. DuPrau teaching kindergarten homeroom. As a side note, some of the graduating middle schoolers on this trip were taught by those two as little ‘uns, so, it was really like one big happy family reunion! The Álvarezes also helped plan the trip and activities, being locals! They also know Uncle Ronnie very well—he is a cousin of Sr. Álvarez!
Via Facebook chat, Sra. Álvarez described the experience from her perspective:
When I returned home after leaving TNCS, I always had the dream of having students from Baltimore come to visit my country. In March, my 3rd-grade class was extremely excited to welcome Mrs. DuPrau and Mrs. Hope and their students to our school. Some of the students were even mine, when I taught at TNCS. It was a wonderful experience for our students from different grades to interact socially with TNCS students and playing soccer and basketball together. However, for me, the best part was watching the kids carry out conversations. We highly enjoyed having a piece of TNCS here in Costa Rica, and we look forward to having more opportunities like that in the future. Pura Vida!
The group’s visit to Saint Gregory’s was designed as both a service-learning activity and to get an idea of what education in Costa Rica is like. The school itself is a private English immersion school with a student body starting with preschool and going all the way through high school. “They were really thankful for us to be there and to speak English with them,” explained Mrs. DuPrau. “We separated the TNCS kids into groups of three or four, and some sat in with elementary classes and some in upper elementary. We also worked on organizing the library, which the principal was so excited about as well as about our visit in general.” Mrs. Hope agreed: “They loved it—the kids there loved it, and our kids loved it. They got to just sit and chat together.” They also had lunch altogether and played sports games at recess. “Our 8th-graders were completely schooled by their 4th-grade boys in soccer,” laughed Mrs. DuPrau.
“Now that they know us, they want us to come back. Next time we could help more with their library, for example, by everybody bring two favorite books to add to it,” said Mrs. DuPrau. “We came in with good intentions,” agreed Mrs. Hope, “but next time we’d like to do more.”
Nature, Here We Come!
After the school visit, Uncle Ronnie drove to them to their second house by Esterillos beach. “This was a really big house with a beautiful backyard and a pool,” said Mrs. Hope. “The kids swam every morning and every night. Being so near the beach was really fun, and the kids especially loved the pool,” she said. Mrs. DuPrau agreed:
We let them swim each morning because they would always be ready to go when we asked, no matter how early. They were very cooperative and had very good attitudes. We set some rules in the beginning, for instance, they had to stay in their rooms until at least 6:30 am (a few of our friends had shared that they are early risers). When they did come out, they were so respectful and quiet. Mrs. Hope and I would wake up and find a few of them just hanging out. We also asked the kids to clean up after themselves as well as help clean the kitchen in small group rotations.
I got more comfortable being in water, like at the pool and at the beach. I can’t really swim, but I’m not afraid of it anymore.
“My favorite activity was going to the Saint Gregory school, because the students were really welcoming.”
“Jacó was really fun!”
La Paz Waterfall Gardens
The next day they visited La Paz Waterfall Gardens, where they were inches away from some adorable sloths. “We got to see all of the beautiful plants and the flowers—Costa Rica is so lush and green. We also saw lots of other animals, like jaguars,” said Mrs. DuPrau.
The next day was their “day off.” “We went tourist shopping, had a typical Costa Rican lunch (rice, beans, meat, plantains), and then headed to the beach for about an hour, but the kids wanted to get back to the pool,” explained Mrs. Hope.
“Relaxing at the pool was the best.”
“I loved the plantains and potatoes!”
Manuel Antonio National Park
Next up: an amazing tour of Manuel Antonio National Park. “The beach was absolutely incredible. It was like kind of like an inlet, so there were no big waves or undercurrent, and the water was so warm and clear. We spent our whole last day just relaxing there,” said Mrs. Hope.
“We played volleyball in the water!”
“I liked the zip line I could front flip off!”
“My favorite dish there was the arroz con leche. I thought that was the greatest!”
Reflections on the Trip
With this trip becoming an annual event for TNCS middle schoolers, Mrs. DuPrau and Mrs. Hope are finding ways to refine it and make it better each time.
Mrs. DuPrau’s Takeaways
Something I’ve learned is that I tend to overbook. I did this with Puerto Rico and maybe here again in Costa Rica. Middle schoolers do need time to chill, as they kept telling me. We did a lot with nature, which the kids would maybe prefer less of because they really just wanted to hang out at the pool! They did use their Spanish a lot, which is important. I really want to go back to Costa Rica on future capstone trips.
Our saving grace for the trip was having our own personal chauffeur. He took us to great restaurants we never would have been able to find on our own. He always connected me to wi-fi in his car, so that anytime parents sent me a message or a question, I was always able to respond quickly.
Both of our houses ended up working really well space-wise. And the kids could not have been better behaved. Mrs. Hope and I still talk about that. Nobody got in trouble; we never had to call parents. It was really nice. We really get to know a lot of the kids in a different way.
I wanted them to have a new experience—to enjoy being teenagers away from their parents and showing that they could be independent and responsible. I wanted them to get to be happy for a week straight and hang out with their friends. They have such a small cohort, and I just loved seeing them love each other so much and getting to have so much fun.
Mrs. Hope’s Takeaways
In the second house, our bedroom was on the first floor, and so was the boys’ bedroom—they were all in one big room. We couldn’t believe how quiet they were being, even all together like that. Then, on the last day, we realized it was because our bedroom door was soundproof. We happened to open it at one point and discovered how loud it actually was out there!
Maybe we should rebrand this capstone trip as less of a service trip, because nobody wants middle schoolers as volunteers, just high school age and up. We’ve learned what works, what doesn’t. We’ll do some service, but I also want to make it fun.
This cohort was like one big family the whole time. Everybody got along from the moment we met at the school at 2:00 in the morning to getting dropped off to their parents at 2:00 in the morning a week later. Everybody was a big fan. They were so supportive of each other, especially with the zip lining. They were each other’s biggest cheerleaders. They all got along really, really well. I feel like this trip really unified them afterward; they have been even more vulnerable and open and honest with each other since then. It’s really neat to see that.
I feel like the best activity we had was the zip line because it got everybody out of their comfort zone. But for me what was most important was the kids just having fun, getting to experience a new culture, and introducing them to the idea that it’s a big world. It was really neat to watch them open their eyes to it.
“My favorite activity was zip lining on the Superman course!”
The students’ reflections are quite touching and will also help inform the planning of future trips. Note that many of their quotes have also been interspersed with photos as captions throughout this post.
The pool was where we got to hang out as as real, real good friends and not just as classmates.
What stuck with me was how similar Costa Rica’s landscape and architecture is to Indonesia, my mother’s birth country. There was a volcano near us.
I got a lot closer to the class. That was definitely one of the biggest things.
I wasn’t that close with everyone in my class, and I bonded more with them during the trip. It was nice. I want to stay in touch with them after we go to our separate high schools.
It was good practice speaking Spanish. We have been learning it for so long—it was fun to use it.
I enjoyed getting to see another country and especially being able to do it with my classmates.
I left feeling like a different person and realizing that I can just be myself. I grew a lot by being around so many other people who were kind and wanted to be good friends.
I’m a big beachgoer so I really liked Manuel Antonio beach, with the clear water and being able to see the rocks and coral underneath. I’ve been to a lot of beaches, but this one was pretty special. It was also memorable because one of the other guys was pretending there was a poisonous vulture in the water. It was rather amusing. Squawk!
I would say that I grew some because I got somewhat more confident, like from the zip lining and being 130 feet in the air. My friendships were also strengthened.
It was my first time going out of the states, so I was pretty jittery, but Costa Rica was nice because it was a new feel of things and a new place to see and explore. The climate was so different. In Baltimore, the weather is just all-around crazy. But, in Costa Rica, it’s always sunny and hot—it’s a good climate to hang out in. I also liked learning about a new currency, the colón (plural, colones).
I grew a lot socially, because I didn’t really use to like talking to people. I realized that once you get to know them, they’re usually pretty cool. I also liked practicing Spanish with Uncle Ronnie.
This post would not be complete without a huuuuuge thank-you to TNCS parent Damian Mosely, who so generously hosted two Blacksauce Kitchen (his restaurant) breakfast biscuit sales at TNCS and donated all of the proceeds to the middle schoolers. Their trip would not have happened without his incredible support.
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:
The island is readily accessible—no passports are required for TNCS students, and it’s relatively easy to get to.
Availability of resources and advice from TNCS community (staff, parents) with knowledge of Puerto Rico was an enormous help for planning.
It’s a Spanish-speaking country for students to use their developing Spanish skills.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!
The group reflects on a wonderful experience . . . and looks ahead to the amazing adventures awaiting them.