Since its inception 10 years ago, The New Century School has certainly grown into more than a preschool, having expanded to comprise both Lower and Upper School divisions. But in many ways, TNCS’s youngest students are still at its heart, and the lower school requires specialized guidance.
Meet Stephen Billhardt!
That’s why Stephen Billhardt has become TNCS’s new Interim Director of Preschool. He came to TNCS in sort of a roundabout fashion . . . but you’ll soon see how clear the path actually was! He and his wife were living and working outside of Boston when, in early 2021, she took a job with Baltimore City public schools. They did what Mr. Billhardt calls a “commuter marriage” for a year while he stayed in Massachusetts temporarily to complete his commitment working at an integrated preschool and kindergarten (and, over the summer, help his elderly father recover from a recent health incident). With both their son and daughter in their respective colleges, and the now 28-year married couple missing each other, he says it was the right move to also relocate to Baltimore. He joined his wife in mid-September and remembered TNCS from previous visits to Baltimore on walkabouts with his wife through Fell’s Point. “Any small school is of interest to me, so I had researched it to find out more about it. After 2 weeks of settling in, I reached out.” After speaking with both Co-Founder/Co-Executive Director Roberta Faux and Head of School Erika Johnson, he was hooked. Part of the appeal, he says, was the Montessori primary program, which he was familiar with because his own children went to Montessori school through 3rd and 4th grades.
Although—spoiler alert—Mr. Billhardt has been in education for more than 30 years, that’s not how his professional life began. “I didn’t know I was going to be an educator,” he recounts, “I thought I was going into business. My dad was in business, my brother was in business, so I just thought that’s what I would do. I actually sold car phones, fax machines, and antitheft devices for a summer.”
Originally from southern Connecticut, he attended Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, earning an undergraduate degree in Economics and Political Science. “My first experience working with children was as a Big Brother in college. I had the same little brother for 3 years, and that got me interested in early childhood education.” He then ended up in Boston, where a couple of his friends were living who thought he’d make a great teacher and suggested he give it a try. While student teaching, he got a Master’s in Education, then a second Master’s in Educational Leadership from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It was there that he met his wife, joking that that was the “best part of the program.”
After Boston, he moved to Vermont for his first full-time teaching job. “I just love Vermont. I taught at a small elementary school called Moretown Elementary—it’s just a great little school, and it’s right on the river.” What drew him to early childhood education? “It’s a great age. Early childhood is a wonderful learning opportunity for the children, for the teachers, for the parents. (As parents, we’re all still learning.) The developmental stage is so great—I appreciate all the smiles and the ready-to-learn attitudes,” he said.
And that sealed the deal! Since then, he has always worked in elementary school or preschool divisions. Next, he and his wife relocated to Michigan. She taught in Detroit public schools, and he went to Grosse Pointe to lead a grade 1 through 5 lower school. After a couple of years in Michigan, they relocated to Cambridge, MA, across the river from Boston. For the next 14 years, he assumed the principalship of schools in the Southborough and Watertown Public Schools.
“I’ve had the opportunity to be in independent and public schools for 33 or 34 years, 27 of those in educational leadership, and I like having that experience.” His most recent independent school experience was as Lower School Head at a pre-K through 4th-grade all-boy’s school called The Fessenden School in Newton, MA. “Once every 10 days he gathered all the students together and marveled at the range of learners and the developmental span. “Although that was challenging, it allowed me to really develop my skill set to engage children. They need some sort of activity; they’re attention spans are only so long, so you have to have little snippets of things and visuals. I would always have music at these assemblies.” Like TNCS, Fessenden “wears a lot of hats” being both a pre-K through grade 4 school but also having an upper school for 5th- through 9th-graders with a boarding option for domestic and international students. Mr. Billhardt was there from 2012 through 2020.
“Finally, over the last 2 years, I had a wonderful experience at the Willett Early Childhood Center, a public integrated preschool for children with and without disabilities. From age 3 there, students have the opportunity to get an individual education plan (IEP), and the public school is required to support them with the hope that they would learn strategies to overcome some of the disabilities or help support them with their disability. We had about 75 children on IEPs with another group of typically developing children as peer role models. All public schools have that opportunity, but I find it very effective. That was one building. Then there was also a stand-alone kindergarten building with 275 kindergarteners.”
Stephen Billhardt at TNCS!
His initial impressions of TNCS will surprise no one. “It’s a very nice community,” he said. “And there’s a lot going—a lot of exciting things. For me, it’s fun learning about such a language-rich immersion experience with the children. I’ve had Spanish in my schools in the past, but nothing to the level of what you see in the classrooms here.” He’s also excited to be back in the Montessori atmosphere. “Montessori is the greatest approach education has to offer for that age group.” He appreciates the multiage component of Montessori and the work ethic it inspires. “I love the open-ended work, the communication, and the collaboration,” he said. “I appreciate the methodical approach to the materials: how they’re laid out, how children access them, when they access them, and how long they access them. So, walking into classrooms and seeing that really gels with me.”
After this long in education, Mr. Billhardt says, he wants to be at a school that excites him. He also wants his role to work for everyone involved. “Let’s see if what I bring works for everybody and for the institution first,” he said of his new position.
With 33 years in the public and private sectors, Mr. Billhardt is excited to help contribute to TNCS. “I’ve had a unique opportunity to see and work with children and families in those sectors. I think all schools offer different opportunities for educators and school leaders to learn. Independent school leaders have a lot to learn from public school leaders and vice versa. I think finding what works best for children, how we communicate with families, how we support and develop educators—each school does it differently. But there are some very good practices out there, and being able to pick the best from the different schools I’ve been at and the experiences that I’ve had, I hope to bring those to this school.”
As for how he’s settling into his new city, he picked the perfect fall to do it, as he greatly enjoys being outside. With these warmer-than-normal fall temperatures, he’s getting plenty of opportunities to walk around and get to know Baltimore: “I like the water; I walk along the harbor in the morning and watch the sunrise, or I take the water taxi. I’ve climbed the Washington monument, but I haven’t yet made it to the art museums.” He particularly wants to get to the American Visionary Art Museum, and we all know what a treat he’s in for. He’s also excited to start sampling some of Charm City’s food. Then there’s the Enoch Pratt Free Library—he has been to four branches so far. Reading and listening to audio books are a favorite pastime. “I like spending time on my own to recharge,” he said. “I love being around people, but at the end of the day I like to get some alone time to rejuvenate.”
When he’s not in Baltimore, he likes road biking and boogie boarding. With our nation’s capital so close by, he and his wife are also looking forward to visits there. They also travel to their daughter’s music performances; she plays the upright bass. “I love spending time with my kids who are 21 and 20. I love seeing how they’ve developed as students and now young people/young adults. As parents, even if you’re an educator, you look back and at some point, you have to say, ‘I did a pretty good job’. I think it’s important as parents and guardians to celebrate our children’s successes and be there to support and nurture them as they grow up. They still need us. That’s our role; our role doesn’t go away.”