At The New Century School, the 2022–2023 school year is going to be an especially consequential one. It not only marks a decade since opening as TNCS, but it has also brought the TNCS community a new Head of School. As Head, Erika Johnson has an important message for us: One school, One program, One community.
Indeed, as we’ll see, Ms. Johnson sees her role, at least initially, as one of unifying all of the many wonderful threads that have made TNCS what it is into one cohesive, beautiful tapestry.
Meet Erika Johnson!
Let’s start with how Ms. Johnson came to be TNCS’s new Head of School—this story may surprise you! With the former Interim Head’s time fulfilled, TNCS was actively recruiting candidates. But when TNCS Co-Founders/Co-Executive Directors Roberta Faux and Jennifer Lawner met Ms. Johnson in the context of seeking Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) instruction for TNCS students, they knew they were speaking to a natural leader and asked her to be Head of School instead! (And, looking ahead a bit, the theme of DEI will come up again.)
To back up, Ms. Johnson and her husband are originally from Baltimore. They traced quite a route around the country before returning here in 2014, however. Ms. Johnson attended McDonogh School from elementary through high school, then earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Maryland. From there, she went on to pursue a Master’s degree in Liberal Studies from Loyola University. (And she’s not done yet—next year, she’ll enter a doctoral program at American University for an Ed.D. in Educational Policy and Leadership.)
Amidst all that education, she still found time to get married in 2000 and start a family in 2002. Her twin boys were born in Atlanta, GA, where she was teaching kindergarten and after-school programs with the Boys and Girls Club of America. In 2005, the Johnsons relocated to Oklahoma City, OK, where they welcomed a daughter. There, Ms. Johnson taught middle school, and Mr. Johnson was a youth pastor. Soon after, he was called to lead a church in Dallas, TX, where they remained from 2008 to 2014. While in Dallas, Ms. Johnson homeschooled her three children and helped her husband build relationships with the community, such as by offering a food pantry. An avid advocate of literacy, she handed out books to the young people coming through the food pantry line.
If you’re starting to see some themes emerge, you’re on the right track. “I’ve always been in the classroom in some capacity,” said Ms. Johnson. Whether that’s in an actual classroom or in an ad hoc classroom taking place around the dining room table, along the food pantry line, or in her childhood bedroom as she taught her dolls to read, Ms. Johnson is a born educator. She describes being “plucked” from her congregation by the leader of the youth ministry to start teaching Sunday school lessons at the age of 11. “For me, those lessons always led back to teaching reading. Literacy has always been very important to me, so I was introducing stories and phonics and all these things through Sunday school lessons, and I’ve been teaching ever since,” she explained.
“Diversity Is Not Visual”
As for how the Johnsons wound up back in Baltimore, they returned to take over the elder Mr. Johnson’s tree removal service so he could retire. One of Ms. Johnson’s positions back on her home turf involved serving as Director of DEI at Notre Dame Preparatory School. “My heart is in the private school world,” she said.
As a student of color at McDonogh for 12 years, I am acutely aware that all students need an advocate. Now more than ever, when diversity is not visual, students need advocates not just in the classroom but within the administration so that the entire organization is able to shift to meet the needs of all students. There was a time when diversity could be relegated to Black and white. Today, diversity means so much more, and often one’s identity cannot be seen with the eyes. Our education systems must teach inclusion as we grow awareness about the complexity of identity.
And that brings us to TNCS.
Erika Johnson at TNCS
Ms. Johnson started at TNCS at the end of the last school year, taking those last couple of months to observe. She did, however, jump in and assist with some immediate needs around campus, so she got some on-the-job training. Since then, she has accomplished quite a bit.
“One School, One Program, One Community”
Right away, Ms. Johnson noticed that a lot was happening around her. Staff and faculty members were working diligently at their tasks, but not necessarily doing it “together.” “Part of the plan that I’ve set forth for the Leadership Team is to create One school, One program, One community. This unifies us so that the preschool is not isolated from the K through 8 program and vice versa. We’re really hoping to help families understand that what we begin at 2 years will walk with those students up through 8th grade,” she explained.
As part of this unification mantra, Ms. Johnson in collaboration with her Leadership Team (Ann Marie Simonetti, Director of Admissions; Abby Hou, Director of Preschool; and Alexis Boyd, Director of Student Support), has created the “Portrait of a Graduate.” This launches from TNCS’s four Core Values of compassion, service, respect, and courage and defines graduates by five traits, including:
- Authentic global citizen
- Inquisitive lifelong learner
- Reflective communicator and collaborator
- Creative problem-solver
- Inclusive leader
“These are the things that we want to see from our 8th-graders as they move on to high school, but this also gives our faculty and staff a vision for who they have in their classroom—that everything they’re doing should be linked to the development of these traits,” said Ms. Johnson.
Another unification measure TNCS has implemented under Ms. Johnson’s leadership concerns the former TNCS Parent Council, which has now been renamed Family Partnership and will merge with the volunteering arm. Instead of the former Classroom Parent, that role has transitioned to Family Representative. “We’re trying to use more inclusive language and to demonstrate our understanding that families come in many different forms,” she explained. Also new this year, the Leadership Team will participate in the monthly Family Partnership meetings. They hope to build a strong link between the Family Community and the Administration.
“Sit and Steep in the Community”
With all that Ms. Johnson has already accompIished, she is careful to not overdo it so early. She explains it this way: “People ask what my vision for TNCS is, and I think the reality is that nobody can come in and cast vision for an organization they don’t know. I need a year to sit and steep in the community. I need to get to know the available resources and the curriculum, so that I can cast a vision. My hope is that the Portrait of a Graduate will resonate with the community. It really is who TNCS had already declared themselves to be. Now, how do we activate a plan to ensure success for each student?”
While she is developing this vision, she has a request of the community: Please be patient with us. “The leadership team is brand new. We are trying to honor the program as it has been designed while also remaining true to our Montessori inspiration and multilingual focus. We’re also trying to implement the necessary infrastructure to make those things possible. That’s going to take a bit of patience from everyone in the community,” she said.
In a true testament to all that Ms. Johnson has done so far for TNCS, this perspective is shared among the faculty and staff. Director of Admissions and Marketing and Montessori Programming Advisor Ann Marie Simonetti says, “Ms. Johnson joined us as a visionary leader with a deep respect for, and commitment to, the TNCS community. Her dedication to building relationships and deepening partnerships is evident in her daily interactions with students, families, faculty, and staff. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve alongside her on the Leadership Team as we endeavor to inspire lifelong learning and empower each member of our community to be their best.”
Although she gives her best to the TNCS community, Ms. Johnson balances work life with family life, and showers her loved ones, including King, her rescue Pit Bull, with love, laughter, joy, and respect.