TNCS Gardens for Earth Day!

Earth Day happens on Sunday, April 22nd this year, with the theme “End Plastic Pollution”. But celebrating our planet is an everyday occurrence at The New Century School—green energy, ecological conservation, and sustainable gardening practices are themes TNCS students are very familiar with, as these are fundamental tenets of the school.

Earth Day itself is always special, though. For the second year in a row, for example, the TNCS Parent Council headed up Sakina Ligon, will host a Family Fun Day that, among lots of other super fun activities, includes crafting with recyclables (see below). TNCS Past year’s Earth Day observances include TNCS Takes Earth Day by Storm and Go Native for Earth Day 2016!

Greenhouse Effect!

Earth Day 2018, however, is extra special. Why? The greenhouse is back up and running, to the delight of students, staff, and families alike. With the changes in the lunch program for the 2017–2018 school year, the greenhouse lay dormant for a few months. Not so any longer! Meet Manuel Cueva, who joined TNCS in September as part of the new kitchen staff and has now taken over as Gardener.

tncs-earth-day-greenhouseSr. Cueva is originally from Cajamarca City, Peru, where he was a construction supervisor and engineer. “I worked at an NGO, IINCAP Jorge Basadre, focused on community development. I worked on projects related to the environment, youth development, health, community banking, and ending child labor,” he said. He came to the United States in June 2016.

Now that he’s here, he has begun working with TNCS students, teaching them to grow produce from seeds. “I like working with my hands and working outside, and I love taking care of nature,” he explained. They started last month, planting indoors, and, as the seedlings have grown sturdy enough, they are gradually moving them into the greenhouse beds (lovingly built last year by TNCS volunteers).

Sr. Cueva has worked with every TNCS class, from the 2-year-olds right on up through the middle schoolers. They have planted marigolds, beans, strawberries, tomatoes, and radishes, and any edible produce will be used in school lunch.

Trabajo del Jardin Abajo

On Friday, April 20th, Sr. Cueva took Professor Manuel’s students to the greenhouse for some transplanting.

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From the photos, it’s clear that students thoroughly enjoyed their greenhouse time as well as all of the advance preparation with the seedlings they lovingly raised. But children also learn and benefit in many other ways from growing things.

Through gardening, they can develop new skills, such as the sense of responsibility they derive from caring for plants; the scientific understanding they gain as they learn about cause and effect (plants will die without water, but thrive when they are properly tended); self-confidence from achieving their goals and enjoying the nutritious food they have grown; and the love of nature that develops as they learn about the outdoor environment in a safe and pleasant place. From there, stewardship of the environment also develops naturally.

Physical activity, collaboration, and discovery are also built-in benefits that TNCS students will realize through gardening. For more on the science-backed ways gardening is good for children, read, Gardening with Kids: How It Affects Your Child’s Brain, Body, and Soul.

Do you have suggestions, recommendation, advice, or questions? Sr. Cueva is eager to hear your thoughts. “If anyone has ideas or suggestions for the green house, please let me know,” he asks.

Go Native for Earth Day 2016!


The Official TNCS Weeping Willow!

Earth Day is always an important occasion at The New Century School, and this year is no different. In honor of Earth Day 2016, the theme of which is Trees for the Earth, all TNCS classes gathered on the playground to witness the planting of a native Weeping Willow. Poetry and singing rounded out the tree dedication ceremony. Trees are basically the lungs of our planet, filtering out harmful gases and leaving the good stuff for us to breathe. Click here for more on Why trees?

But now let’s zoom in and focus some good Earth Day vibes a little closer to home. Trees aren’t the only environmentally beneficial plantings we can make. Indigenous plants—plants that occur naturally in the region in which they evolved—also make huge contributions to keeping the local environment healthy and thriving. The Patterson Park Audubon Center urges Baltimore City and surrounding residents to “Take Climate Action” and to preserve biodiversity by using native plants in your garden, be it potted or full-scale.

One of the primary reasons this is particularly important for our area is because Baltimore (a.k.a. Birdtown), as part of the Atlantic Flyway, is a vital stopover point for many species of migrating birds. Yet, over time, the number of green spots in the city where these birds can refuel during their long journeys has dwindled. PPAC is working to change that: “Audubon has observed over 200 species of birds in Patterson Park, with over 40 of those species using the park to breed and raise their young. Our habitat gardens in the park are filled with a diversity of native plants from Maryland which serve as hosts for insects—birds’ favorite food—as well as provide essential seeds, berries, nectar, shelter, water, and places to raise their young.”

PPAC can also help you create your own wildlife sanctuary (or, garden, patch, or windowbox) through workshops, resources, and more. But first, let’s explore why native plants are so vital.

Benefits of Native Plants

According to the website, native plants are great for:

  • Wildlife: In addition to providing vital habitat for birds, many other species of wildlife benefits as well. The colorful array of butterflies and moths, including the iconic monarch, the swallowtails, tortoiseshells, and beautiful blues, are all dependent on very specific native plant species. Native plants provide nectar for pollinators including hummingbirds, native bees, butterflies, moths, and bats. They provide protective shelter for many mammals. The native nuts, seeds, and fruits produced by these plants offer essential foods for all forms of wildlife.
  • Low maintenance: Once established, native plants generally require little maintenance.
  • Beauty: Many native plants offer beautiful showy flowers, produce abundant colorful fruits and seeds, and brilliant seasonal changes in colors from the pale, thin greens of early spring, to the vibrant yellows and reds of autumn.
  • Healthy places for people: Lawns and the ubiquitous bark-mulched landscapes are notorious for requiring profuse amounts of artificial fertilizers and synthetic chemical pesticides and herbicides. The traditional suburban lawn, on average, has 10x more chemical pesticides per acre than farmland. By choosing native plants for your landscaping, you are not only helping wildlife, but you are creating a healthier place for yourself, your family, and your community.
  • Helping the climate: Landscaping with native plants can combat climate change. In addition to the reduced noise and carbon pollution from lawn mower exhaust, many native plants, especially long-living trees like oaks and maples, are effective at storing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.
  • Conserving water: Because native plants are adapted to local environmental conditions, they require far less water, saving time, money, and perhaps the most valuable natural resource, water.

Gardening with Native Plants

Unfortunately, most of the plants available in the larger, nationally known nurseries are not native to the region where they are being sold. These alien species can degrade the local habitat, the ecological basis for insects, birds, and, by extension, humans. By using native plants in our urban gardens (such as they are), however, we preserve the natural symbiosis of our area.

Using any number of native plants is going to help the environment, but if you really want to go the extra mile (as the crow flies) toward making your green space a sanctuary for wildlife, follow the scheme from PPAC shown below.

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And now, you ask, where do I avail myself of these native plants? Partnering with PPAC, Blue Water Baltimore’s Herring Run Nursery has all the native wonder you could ask for—over 250 varieties of trees, shrubs, vines, and flowers that support butterflies, pollinators, birds, and other wildlife. Can’t make it out to Herring Run? No problem–PPAC  will once again be hosting a Native Plant Sale in Patterson Park during the Butchers Hill Flea Market on Saturday, May 14th.

So, in honor of Earth Day, let your garden grow for the environment this year!

TNCS Elementary Engages in Conservation By the Barrel

With Earth Day 2016 only a week away, you must be wondering, what awesome environment-friendly project will The New Century School students be involved in this year? You are certainly recalling that, since his tenure at TNCS began, elementary STEM teacher Dan McGonigal has made the most out of Earth Day annually to explore conservation and ways to help the environment both locally and globally. Read about last year’s efforts here: TNCS Elementary Takes Earth Day by Storm!

And this year will not disappoint! In fact, this year’s project is one of those learning experiences where individual components come together in a beautiful whole worth far more than the sum of its parts. Mr. McGonigal managed to harness science, art, team-building, environmental advocacy, and fundraising for TNCS to do some actual, measurable good for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed area.

What is the product of this amazing, synergy? Handpainted rain barrels! Even better, these rain barrels will be raffled to four lucky winners on Friday, April 29th!

The project was a partnership with Barrels by the Bay, which Mr. McGonigal learned about through Blue Water Baltimore, who he worked with on last year’s storm drain stenciling. According to their website, “Barrels by the Bay is a non-profit organization focused on contributing to sustainable development of the communities within the Chesapeake Bay watershed and surrounding regions. [They] work to help combat flooding and stormwater runoff concerns throughout communities within these regions, educate community members about our world’s water issues and the importance of water conservation efforts, and inspire students to preserve our world’s water resources.”

The organization came into being on the 22nd Annual United Nations World Water Day, on March 22, 2015, in Annapolis, Maryland, kicking off with a project for area schools to repurpose 50-gallon Coca-Cola syrup drums as rain barrels. In 2016, they expanded their reach to other schools within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed region, including TNCS. Their efforts are having quite an impact: An average of 700 gallons is collected in one rainfall (1 inch of rain in 24 hours) in the 50-gallon rain barrel drum. If Maryland has an average of 41 inches of rain per year, then in just 1 year, one barrel can collect 28,700 gallons of water. That’s no mere drop in the bucket!

But, as mentioned, collecting tons of water is not all they are good for. Says Mr. McGonigal: “In the fall, we used the barrels to develop teamwork and cooperative learning skills in the 2nd–5th grades. They designed the artwork and then voted on the best designs (two per class). They then prepped the barrels for painting by sanding and priming them. They traced their designs on the barrels and, finally, painted them.”

You can watch the 6-month evolution of their creations in this slideshow.

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“This was also another opportunity for us to put our environmental learning into action. It was a great experience and I hope to make this a yearly event in my class,” said Mr. McGonigal. They then decided to turn the rain barrel project into a fundraiser for TNCS and Barrels by the Bay (each organization gets half of the proceeds). “We also have one more barrel that will be used on our school campus. This will be decorated by student handprints on Earth Day. We hope to use it to help water our school garden,” he said.

Don’t miss the chance to win one of these beautiful and functional rain barrels for your home—get your raffle tickets through the TNCS office through Friday 4/29/16 (by 8:30 am). And don’t worry, Barrels by the Bay even offers workshops to demonstrate how to  harvest rainwater from your roof, store it, and use it for your own home as well as to explain how rain barrels also improve water quality in our rivers and streams.

Thanks to TNCS 2nd–5th science classes, Barrels by the Bay, and the TNCS community, what a great Earth Day this one will be! And a big shout-out to Mr. McGonigal for his continued in-class focus on environmental conservation!

TNCS Elementary Takes Earth Day by Storm!

Recently, The New Century School elementary students participated in their annual STEM Fair, and each division (K/1st and upper and lower elementary) tackled a problem related to water. The upper elementary students, in particular, focused on the Chesapeake Bay and what steps can be taken to reduce pollution in the bay and protect its natural flora and fauna (read TNCS STEM Fair 2015 Makes a Huge Splash! for more).

Last week was Climate Education Week, with Earth Day being the week’s main attraction. Earth Day 2015 was the 35th annual and a very big deal, globally . . . and locally! To reinforce the concepts his students had begun exploring during STEM Fair preparations, TNCS’s STEM teacher Dan McDonigal revisited the problem of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay for a clever and very rewarding Earth Day project: Operation Storm Drain Beautification!


Blue Water Baltimore offers community-led solutions to clean up Baltimore’s waters.

The idea for the project came to him from Blue Water Baltimore, an advocacy group dedicated to using community-based restoration to achieve clean water in Baltimore watersheds. One way is by stenciling storm drains to educate the community and raise awareness about the improper disposal of household garbage, overflowing street corner trash cans, and litter on sidewalks and in gutters and storm drains. Because storm drains are entryways to our bodies of water, including the Chesapeake Bay, when it rains, trash and pollutants in the streets are carried into the storm drains and directly to our waters.

So, Mr. McDonigal attended one of Blue Water Baltimore’s stenciling workshops, applied for and obtained the necessary materials to paint two nearby storm drains, and celebrated Earth Day 2015 by making a difference in our wonderful Fell’s Point community! His students were thoroughly engaged in this project, which demonstrates its inherent worthiness. Really, what’s not to love about an activity that applies scientific concepts studied thus far, helps the environment, teaches responsible community involvement, integrates art, and gets the kids outside?

However, TNCS students were not the only group to appreciate this endeavor—Ann St. residents stopped by periodically to see what was happening and were thrilled to receive this community gift. Well done, indeed, TNCS upper elementary! And a huge thanks to Mr. McDonigal for this initiative!

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Breaking Down the GMO Issue: Some Earth Day Musings

With Earth Day less than 2 weeks away, media coverage of all things environmental is really heating up. Among the widely covered controversies this past week is the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). From the Washington Post to the New York Times, GMO foods and crops are the environmental topic du jour.


Scientists modify the genes of seeds, fruits, and vegetables to produce new strains.

Whether you are for or against GMOs (or are even blissfully unaware that a controversy rages about them), nearly everyone can agree that we need to know more about them. To date, research on their downstream effects on the environment—and on us!—has been sorely lacking. Claims on both sides of the debate abound. The proponents argue that GM corn, soy, rice, etc. can help end world hunger and are perfectly safe for consumption; the opponents rebut that those full bellies will come at the cost of mass infertility/sterility or who knows what reproductive, physiologic, or neurologic impairments. Scientists issue warnings, retract them, then retract the retractions. Meanwhile, as much as 70% of the food stocked on grocery store shelves already contains GMOs.

Because Earth Day is a very important day at environmentally conscious The New Century School, let’s look at some GMO-related current events as well as rationally view the issue from both sides of the corncob.

Why We Have GMOs in the First Place

The Monsanto stance (and that of other GMO-using companies such as Nestle, PepsiCo, etc.) is that they are using biotechnology as well as sustainable agricultural practices to produce enough food for the globe. Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates himself supports this practice.

Papaya superfood

With the help of genetic engineering, certain strains of papayas have become resistant to viruses that threaten their extinction.

Arguably one of the main goals of genetic modification is to produce disease-resistance traits. Some say that genetic engineering saved the papaya from possible global extinction due to the particularly virulent ringspot virus. Papaya is a superfood and a vitally important source of vitamins and nutrients for many tropics dwellers. Its loss would be catastrophic.

Others have argued that the environment and the economy also benefit. GMO crops can be engineered to reduce stress on the environment, and farmers can rest assured that the GMO crops they have grown will find a buyer in GMO companies (or even be subsidized by them).

Click here for a list of other potential GMO benefits.

Kernels of Truth

Thus, GMO food companies’ aims are, at least on the face of it, laudable. The issue gets stickier and the truth harder to zero in on, however, when we learn that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s approach with these companies so far has been seemingly laissez faire, leaving the onus of ensuring a food’s safety on the food producer, according to the FDA’s Statement of Policy on genetically modified and other new plant varieties.

And stickier still when we consider that genes operate far beyond our ken. They switch on and off, mutate, and behave in often confounding ways we are still uncovering. Only time will tell what implications the wiliness of genes (i.e., those that were lab derived instead of occurring naturally) has in and for our foods. So what’s the regulatory holdup?

First there was Big Tobacco, then there was Big Soda, now . . . Big Soy?

Or so say the members of the growing resistance movement to GMOs. They claim that food policy in the United States is plagued by croneyism—that it’s being underwritten by the Monsanto company, the very company that sells GMO foods and remains one of the biggest makers of genetically modified seeds. They say that Monsanto has such entrenched political muscle that passing any legislation that might in any way hurt the company bottom line (e.g., requiring that GMO food be labeled as containing GMOs) will be as uphill a battle as was the decades-long fight against tobacco companies like Phillip Morris to cease aggressive marketing even in the face of incontrovertible evidence that smoking kills. So, as federal and state governments work to establish policy on GMOs, GMO opponents say that Monsanto is actually controlling this policymaking by, among other things, removing “whistleblowers.” According to one California dietician working on such a policy panel for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, when she pointed out in February that two other panelists had clear links with Monsanto, she was dismissed. Read the full New York Times story here.

Truth in Labeling

Sweet 'n Low

Chemicals such as saccharin that some studies have suggested cause cancer are labeled on this packet.

Back to labeling GMO foods—which the European Union has required for more than a decade—what’s the big objection, ask many? It’s as if GMO companies are afraid that if we know what’s in the foods made with GMOs, we’ll stop buying them. Or that naming the ingredients implies that they are potentially harmful. But whether it’s safe or unsafe, don’t we have the right to know what we’re eating? Shoppers know what’s in Sweet ‘N Low (another Monsanto product, incidentally) thanks to the label, and restaurants still stock it and consumers still use it aplenty. The point is that they can choose not to ingest it and perhaps opt for a more natural alternative or they can disregard all of the conflicting reports about saccharin and dump it in their coffee all day long because they are informed.

Occupy Monsanto is a group dedicated to raising awareness about GMOs. Although their ultimate goal is probably the complete eradication of GMOs, they have spawned other less radical movements as well such as the “eat-in” in front of the College Park, MD FDA offices earlier this week. Demonstrators gathered there to make their thoughts about GMOs known, encourage the FDA to require GMO labeling, and cook and eat a big pot of “stone soup” (just like what TNCS primary students collaboratively cooked up last November to celebrate Thanksgiving), each contributing an ingredient that was most certainly not genetically engineered. It was about as wholesome a protest as we’re likely ever to see, especially for such a polarizing issue. Read the full Washington Post story here.

Eat-in protestors gently demonstrated their disapproval of GMOs by cooking soup with homegrown ingredients. No tear gas required!

Eat-in protestors gently demonstrated their disapproval of GMOs by cooking soup with homegrown ingredients. No tear gas required!

For more about what GMO opponents say against GMOs, read this.

Bringing it Home

Not surprisingly, considering the ferocity of this battle, many of us are either hopelessly confused or just plain undecided which side of the issue we fall on due to the paucity of long-term empirical data. A couple of things still seem crystal clear, however, and those are that labeling GMO foods seems logical (not to mention ethical) because we have a right to know what we’re eating (whether we choose to pay attention or not) and that lots of full-scale studies on the effects of GMOs must be conducted.


This handsome young GMO protestor at the College Park “eat-in” urges us to eat more kale :).

In the meantime, TNCS families can keep well out of the fray if they so prefer. With the Garden Tuck Shop Program for student lunches, for example, kids eat locally sourced, largely organic fruits, veggies, and baked dishes from Chef Emma Novashinski’s thoughtfully and lovingly constructed menus. At home, parents can also avail themselves of locally grown, Food Alliance–certified produce by joining the One Straw Farm CSA. Weekly shares can be picked up right at TNCS with a total of 10 enrollees (we currently have 6!). Please join here!

Have a comment, correction, anecdote? Please let us know how you feel about this issue.

And, oh yeah! Happy Earth Day on April 22nd!