Check-In with TNCS Curriculum Coordinator Adriana DuPrau!

The New Century School‘s Curriculum Coordinator Adriana DuPrau has been very busy heading into the third quarter of the school year. That’s due, of course, to the fact that she oversees the curricula of both elementary and middle school divisions, which is no small task, but there’s another aspect making this particular year rather special—in 2019, TNCS will graduate its first 8th-grade class!

So, let’s just get this out of the way. In Baltimore, it’s not where you went to college, it’s where you went to high school. It’s a thing.

High School Readiness

The implications of graduating the first 8th-grade class are huge. First, it’s important to get it right and pay close attention to the process to be able to replicate it seamlessly in subsequent years as well as to avoid pitfalls. Most importantly, however, the students must be ready for high school, and that readiness entails a lot, especially here in Baltimore City, where high schools are not zoned; rather, students choose the school they want to attend and then apply to get in. This is true for both public and private high schools. Many city high schools have unique identities, so students can match up their individual strengths and interests to the particular school that is going to meet their needs. Ultimately, they are embarking on a path that should prepare them for future success, whether that’s in college, career, or whatever else they envision.

This process takes planning: School choice starts by exploring available options to learn what each school offers; where it’s located; and, importantly, what special academic (e.g., results on a standardized assessment) or admissions requirements (e.g., audition or portfolio) must be met to be accepted. Attending school Open Houses and doing Shadow Days are also typically part of the process.

So, Mrs. DuPrau has been supporting this effort in many ways, starting with testing. “We learned that some of our 8th-graders had not taken many tests, and so we need to provide more test-taking opportunities. Next year, practicing for tests will take the place of teacher’s choice time for middle school students. Let’s learn how to take a test. It’s also important to have a test for students coming in to TNCS to see where they’re at,” she explained.

Wait—TNCS doesn’t do standardized testing, does it? Although the TNCS approach is the antithesis to “teaching to the test,” as mentioned above, the results of a standardized assessment are probably going to be necessary for any student bent on getting into the school of choice.

Oh, I See!

That’s where the Independent School Entrance Exam—the ISEE—comes into play. This test comprises Reading Computation, Essay, Quantitative Reasoning, Mathematical Computation, and Analogies. Dean of School Alicia Danyali began implementing test-taking skills instruction as well as practice time during the 2017–2018 school year.

“Most private school students need to take the ISEE, and then their score is what the majority of private schools will look at. That’s the big standardized test,” explained Mrs. DuPrau. She signed up TNCS to be an Education Records Bureau (ERB) member so that the ISEE could be administered on site. (“ERB is a not-for-profit member organization providing admission and achievement assessment as well as instructional services for PreK–Grade 12,” according to the ERB website.)

Said Mrs. DuPrau: “We opened the ISEE up to 6th–8th graders. It was optional for 6th and 7th grade and mandatory for the 8th grade because they need that score.” The 3-hour test took place on November 14th and was proctored by TNCS Language Arts teacher Ilia Madrazo. “It ran all morning,” said Mrs. DuPrau, “and was the first time our students had taken a real test.” (A practice run took place last May.) “To prep the 8th graders for this test, [TNCS Co-Executive Director/Co-Founder Roberta Faux] worked with them weekly, especially in math,” she said. How did the students fare? “They said it was super hard,” said Mrs. Duprau. “The ISEE is hard. Out of all the high school testing they have been doing, they said the ISEE was by far the hardest.” (But they scored highest in math!)

It’s important to note that the ISEE is required for applications to private schools.

And Are They Ready?

For public schools, on the other hand, the i-Ready is a required test, which, unlike the pencil-and-paper ISEE, is administered online and took place a month after the ISEE, on December 14th. “From my understanding,” explained Mrs. DuPrau, “the computerized test will first assess ‘where the student is’ and either build on questions if the student keeps getting everything right, or it will go back. In this way, it’s similar to how SuccessMaker works.” Thus, i-Ready is both intuitive and differentiated.

After students had taken the test, Mrs. DuPrau escorted them to Taco Fiesta for lunch!

tncs-middle-schoolers-take-the-i-ready-test

Having taken both the ISEE and the i-Ready, TNCS 8th graders now have the option of applying to both public and private schools. They also took both tests early enough that they could retake one or both if desired.

Students applying to Institute of Notre Dame additionally had to take the High School Placement Test (HSPT), which was administered at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School.

High School Applications

While all this testing fervor was happening, students had to begin completing their high school applications, which were due December 14th for most private schools and approximately a month later for public schools. Some other schools they are applying to include Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women and Western High School—for those of you true Baltimoreans sure to inquire!

Mrs. DuPrau was instrumental here as well. She worked with TNCS scholarship students during the school day as needed to help them navigate the less-than-straightforward application process. She got the students accordion binders so they could organize materials by school—one tab per school. “For each school they applied to, we made checklists, put in our applications, made copies, and made sure we scheduled a shadow day and an interview,” said Mrs DuPrau. With binders in hand, they attended the Baltimore City Schools Choice Fair at the Convention Center on December 9th. Explains Mrs. DuPrau: “All the high schools from Baltimore City go there and have their own booth. A few representatives from the school man the booth and share about the school. There were also a lot of performances—singing and dancing and things like that. The girls would visit the booth and ask questions, and there were also students from the school on hand whom they could talk to.”

“The girls had so much fun with it,” recounts Mrs. DuPrau, “and I also taught them how to research information on their own. They’re binders are still growing, and they keep adding tabs!”

tncs-curriculum -coordinator-adriana-duprau-helps-apply-to-high-school

Mrs. DuPrau also had the good fortune to meet a representative of the i-Ready test whose job is specifically getting 8th graders into high school. She invited Mrs. DuPrau to join a committee on how to prepare 8th graders, follow up with them, make at least two visits throughout each high school year, and later help them apply to colleges.

Other Areas

As busy as she was with the 8th-graders, Mrs. DuPrau still made time for all of the other TNCS students, for tutoring, for setting up programs around campus, for doing dismissals (always with a big smile) as well as for teachers and faculty.

Self-Defense Class

For students in grades 4 through 8, Mrs. DuPrau arranged a self-defense/self-empowerment workshop on December 18th with author and mindfulness guru Jillian Amodio. The class focused more on promoting self-confidence and respect rather than combat techniques and was divided into boys and girls sessions, with slightly different curricula. Tips for online safety and other common-sense habits were also encouraged.

This video gives an idea of what her workshops might cover; however, they are tailored to context and age.

Finally, Ms. Amodio gave the following mantras for the students to reflect on.

Mantra for Respectful Males
I respect myself, my body, my mind, and my emotions.
I respect the bodies, minds, and emotions of others.
I respect that others feel differently and value our differences.
I am allowed to express sadness and hurt without being seen as weak.
I offer to help others when I see they are in need.
I will not place myself above anyone else. We are all equal and worthy.
There is no place for unnecessary aggression in my life.
Gentleness is a something I value.
Sensitivity towards others is something I take pride in.
There is no reason to be rude.

Mantras for Strong Girls
I respect myself, my body, my mind, and my emotions.
I respect the bodies, minds, and emotions of others.
I respect that others feel differently and value our differences.
I am allowed to express sadness and hurt without being seen as weak.
I offer to help others when I see they are in need.
I am in control! I am Strong! I am worthy!
Bold is beautiful!
I will never settle for less than I deserve!
I will not apologize for others! I will not apologize unnecessarily!
Every great woman has encountered fierce battles. Wear your battle scars with pride and rejoice in all you have conquered!

Learn more about Ms. Amodio at jillianamodio.com.

Staff Support

Although her official title is “Curriculum Coordinator,” Mrs. DuPrau’s responsibilities stretch beyond the classroom. She works closely with TNCS Head of School Shara Khon Duncan, for example, and also meets regularly with teachers. “[Señora Duncan and I] work together on how we can help with or improve the curriculum. I also help her observe teachers as well as with applying for federal grants (e.g., Title II and Title IV). We are also trying to figure out how our school can be recognized on school choice applications.”

tncs-curriculum-coordinator-adriana-duprau-and-teachers

She notes that morale among teachers has been especially high this year, which makes her job more fun—as well as trickles down to happier students. Part of this, she reasons, is the wonderful teachers themselves and another part of it is how valued they feel by the administration. In general, a spirit of collaboration and positivity pervades.

Coordinating the International Trip

Another first for TNCS this year is the international service trip middle schoolers will take this spring. They are planning to go to Puerto Rico, where passports are not required. “That is a big project,” said Mrs. DuPrau. “Figuring out all the details and coming up with fundraising ideas has been challenging.”

But, never fear! It will happen, and Immersed will fill you in on all the fun! In the meantime, thanks for all you have done to make the 2018–2019 school year such a huge success, Mrs. DuPrau!

TNCS’s Second Annual Town Hall

town-hall

TNCS will host a Town Hall annually to provide a forum for communication of ideas and news to the TNCS community.

On Tuesday, March 10th, The New Century School held its 2015 Town Hall meeting for an auditorium full of eager participants. Admissions Director and Town Hall Moderator Robin Munro said, “We are a young and very ambitious school, so yearly meetings like this are critical. We will provide an annual state of the school update, specifically the K–8th program, and a forum for families to ask questions.” Childcare with dinner and wine and hors’ d’oeuvres were offered, and questions were solicited ahead of time to allow the event speakers to shape the discussion accordingly.

There was an evident unifying thread to this event: collaboration. Mrs. Munro remarked by way of introduction that “the map hasn’t been written to exactly where the school’s destination is and what the steps are along the way.” The implication is clearly that TNCS community input is not only valued and taken seriously but is also helping navigate to the destination. We are writing this map together.

tncs-town-hall-audience

TNCS parents chat amongst themselves while having a little nosh prior to the start of the event.

Some notable differences from last year’s Town Hall bear pointing out. The biggest is the growth and maturation that the past year has afforded TNCS. Now in its 5th year, TNCS has emerged from the growing-pains phase faced by any new school as a secure, comfortable-in-its-own skin swan. It is owning its unique identity, and that feels good. Another key difference was in the nature of the interaction between the audience of parents and the event speakers (school administrators and executive directors). Parents were encouraged to share any concerns, but criticism was given in an overwhelmingly constructive way. Parents explained their problems but helpfully offered potential solutions to these problems in the same breath. The result was a very positive and productive evening. It felt like we were all in this together, collaborating to help keep the school flourishing and moving forward. Oh, right—that is the essence of the TNCS community!

happy-hour-light-fare-provided

Hors d’oeuvres gave attendees time to arrive at a leisurely pace, mingle, and recharge before getting down to business.

Speaker Presentations

In Public Health, the concept of “patient activation” measures an individual’s capacity to manage his or her own health and health care. Does she eat right and get plenty of sleep to maintain health? If he falls ill, does he have the skills to communicate effectively with a physician and to follow doctor’s orders? A correlation can be drawn in the education domain: “parent activation.” The Town Hall audience of parents was highly activated. They participate competently in the education their children are receiving at TNCS, they are knowledgeable about every aspect of their child’s school day, they purposefully sought out the school that best aligned with their own values. Their kids are so much the better off for it. This is not a way to say that TNCS students are simply academically superior. Although that is often the case, academic performance is not the key measure of “success” at TNCS; it’s so much more.

Co-Founder and Executive Director Roberta Faux calls the TNCS community “like-minded,” and she expressed our shared vision beautifully in a couple of personal vignettes. She retold the story of the school’s origins (much of the audience had not heard it last year) and how quickly the 1-room Patterson Park Montessori grew into TNCS today. Then she described a lovely interaction she recently had with one of her daughters, in which her daughter asked her what gifts would she (mom) prefer had been bestowed on her daughter as a baby by a fairy godmother, a là Princess Aurora in the story of Sleeping Beauty. First of all, what an insightful and touching question from such a young child. Both this question and the answer Mrs. Faux ultimately gave exemplify what TNCS is, how it works, and why it is such a phenomenal school. “I took a step back,” she said, “and I asked myself, “as parents and educators, what do we want for our kids?” In the meantime, of course, she had answered her daughter by telling her that she likes the gifts that her daughter already exhibits, such as her kind spirit and enumerating her many other attributes.

“It’s not just about achievement,” she continued. “It’s about being able to find our own happiness, overcome stress, engage in healthy give-and-take human relationships. These are the real-life training skills that we hope our children grow up learning and take with them.” She explained that in the United States, “giftedness” and high IQ are perhaps overvalued. “All children are capable of great things,” she said. But what’s wrong with working hard to achieve goals rather than being able to effortlessly master something? “Grit” is what will allow a person to attain mastery of something otherwise outside of his or her given wheelhouse. At TNCS, students are encouraged to try new things, to explore and to inquire their way into making self-guided discoveries. This takes perseverance, and this stick-to-itiveness will be a resource they can draw on in any circumstance for life. (Please see below for links to the TED talk she mentioned as well as Immersed‘s own handling of this topic.) “Education should not be just about achievement,” concluded Mrs. Faux. “It’s about cultivating the strength to work hard enough to find what you love. For my kids and for the kids here, if they can find that, then we’ve given them so much.”

Co-Founder and Executive Director Jennifer Lawner spoke next to express appreciation of and gratitude for TNCS staff and families, second the ideas expressed by Mrs. Faux, and to share a charming anecdote of her own: “Thinking back to 2007, I remembered how Roberta and I would sit on the sofa in her sunroom and discuss the crazy idea of opening a preschool. Finally, I knew I had to make a decision, so I said, ‘I’ll only do it if we can do language immersion,” and without any hesitation whatsoever she said, ‘well, okay’.”

Based on the topics submitted by attendees, Ms. Munro organized the overall discussion into nine umbrella categories: Space, Curriculum, Staffing, Standardized Testing, Accreditations, Parent–Administration Organization, Scholarship Fund, Short-Term and Long-Term Plans, and Open Q&A. Although not every topic got exhaustive coverage and not necessarily in this order, the following synopsis provides a comprehensive overview of the school and its future direction.

Space: Indoor and Outdoor

The Middle School opens in fall of 2016 and will most likely be housed in the existing Union Box space of Building North. The Co-Founders are in talks with architects and engineers to develop it as a multi-classroom space, which, if all goes planned, will be secured by August. Fall 2015 will see a mixed-age grade 4/5 classroom, mixed-age grade 2/3 classroom, and either two mixed-age K/1st classrooms or a straight K class plus one mixed-age K/1st class.

Last year’s playground redesign experienced some environmental setbacks but is still going to happen in order to create a space that can work for preschool, elementary, and future middle school students. A new geo dome will be erected, and the greenhouse will be moved. Other aspects are less certain, but ideas for improvement flew about the room. Also, Head of School Alicia Danyali just announced that Friday that TNCS mom Tracey Browning has organized another High Five fundraiser at Camden Yards. Funds will go to the playground overhaul.

Staffing and Curriculum

Mrs. Danyali fielded these topics and was visibly thrilled to announce that she will be joined by an Assistant Head of School in August. This will free up much of her time to focus on exploring new approaches to inspire kids to learn and be excited about that learning. The International Baccalaureate is one such program on the horizon. “The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect,” through challenging and rigorous education programs.

Regarding the curriculum, questions here were very specific. Being fans already of the school day scholastic content, parents wanted to know if there will be additional after-school enrichment, sports, and musical instrument instruction. The administration heard them loud and clear—this was perhaps the primary issue of the evening. Proposed solutions will probably involve community partnerships, and this is a good thing on many levels. TNCS is committed to being a responsible and active member of the external community; partaking of community offerings is one way to honor this commitment. Discussions were already underway to expand the relationship with Coppermine Fieldhouse at DuBurns Arena, so giving more opportunities for team sports instruction and participation is a likely outgrowth. The Patterson Park pool could be used for swimming lessons, and the ice skating rink could also be used in an athletic program. Musical instrument instruction will have to be given some more thought, but some creative workarounds thrown out included inquiring about the services of Laura Norris, Director of the Baltimore Chapter of Mando for Kids, a free program that teaches Baltimore City kids ages 6 and up to play the mandolin. Mrs. Norris just happens to live down the block from TNCS and is a frequent guest performer. This video clip features all age groups she currently teaches. Developing a special offshoot for TNCS students is a distinct possibility.

Standardized Testing

“Will TNCS be implementing standardized testing?” was another popular question. “To be in line with the other private schools, it makes sense,” said Ms. Danyali. “We are leaning toward the ERB, but it’s not set in stone yet. We want something that would match this independent, dual-language learning environment.” According to the ERB–Lighting the Pathways to Learning website (ERB stands for Education Resources Bureau), “ERB is the only not-for-profit member educational services organization offering assessments for both admission and achievement for independent and public schools PreK–grade 12. . . With the diverse needs and requirements in today’s academic landscape, ERB takes a customized approach to our services.” Ms. Danyali says she is grateful that TNCS isn’t forced to implement standardized testing, “but students also need to know how to take a test—it’s important to have that exposure.”

Such testing, albeit less pressurized than it would be in a public school setting, will also prepare students for matriculation into secondary school and beyond. Regardless, teachers are never asked to simply “teach to the test.” They have freedom to accomplish their goals how they deem suitable, based on and tailored specifically to the individuals they teach.

Parent–Administration Organization 

Parents were very vocal about their willingness to help tackle existing obstacles to progress. A  suggestion was made was to formalize a PTA-esque parent committee, and another to create an oversight committee to help tie individual committee threads together to more effectively communicate school changes and news. “We are open,” said Mrs. Munro. “If what you want is a formal quarterly meeting, we’ll make that happen.” Thus, again the collaborative nature of this group was felt.

Short- and Long-Term Plans and Q&A

Though we didn’t get the chance to address this one head on, a theme throughout the discussion emerged that could serve to answer questions about how well students will be prepared for the next steps (whatever those might be) in their academic careers and lives. With the attention to whole-child development, the carefully differentiated instruction, the administration policies that ensure that TNCS doesn’t exist in a vacuum but is part of the city and state educational corps, etc. all combine to guarantee not just preparedness but that the TNCS-educated student will thrive in his or her future environs.

The Q&A gave TNCS administrators a clear idea of what parents feel could be done better. These issues were addressed with seriousness and respect and are of immense value to the moving the school forward. Many parents took this opportunity to praise the school and administrators for the zillion things they get right on a daily basis.

Finally . . .

For more information on Professor Angela Duckworth and grit, please visit the following links:

See you next year, TNCS community! In the meantime, keep that valuable and much-appreciated feedback coming!

Standardized Testing Debate Continues

A few weeks ago, The Washington Post published “Your children deserve better than this, first-grade teachers tell parents,” an article that tells the stories of two teachers who are publicly refusing to administer standardized tests they believe harmful to their students. One of The New Century School‘s core values is to never “teach to the test,” and the article fuels commitment to this tenet. Although the article affirms beliefs already held by the TNCS community, what is unique is not the teachers’ condemnation of standardized testing, it’s their brave refusal to administer them in their classrooms, come what may.

In a letter to their students’ parents, which was subsequently published on the website United Opt Out National (“a grassroots organization advocating for the rights of parents to opt their children out of standardized tests and against the privatization of public education”), highly credentialed and greatly esteemed teachers Karen Hendren and Nikki Jones break down the reasons behind their mutiny. At the center of their argument is lost learning time:

In our classrooms the children spend, on average, 1,510 minutes (25 hours) completing assessments. 720 minutes of those assessments are one-on-one. That means that we are tied up assessing students for at least 17, 280 minutes a school year. Your children are losing 288 hours of time with their teacher because of mandated testing. When you break down our days and count for specials, lunch, and recess, we end up with about 4 hours of instruction time. So, 288 instructional hours, or 72 days… yes, 72 days of our school year we, as teachers, are tied up assessing students with the mandated assessments. Why are our schools failing? Why are children not learning how to read? We think the numbers above answer those questions.

And this is just in first grade! The problem, they explain, is that so much standardized testing is considered “high-stakes testing,” which is generally used to determine accountability, with merit or penalties awarded accordingly. High-scoring schools get government funding; low-scoring schools do not, with repercussions for students and staff alike. It’s really no wonder that the specter of teaching to the test arose in such a culture. Teachers and administrators are arguably just trying to keep the school doors open.

But Hendren and Jones are seeing the effects on children of leaching away the creativity and autonomy from the classroom and declining to participate: “This is about what is in the best interest of the child. When education steps away from the child, all purpose is lost.” They do, however, fully understand the value of assessment. Without assessment, the individual student cannot be given the tailored instruction he or she may need. That’s another nuance—a classroom does not comprise one homogenous set of children all learning the same things at the same rate by the same learning vehicle, so why should they be expected to demonstrate what they have learned in a standardized fashion?

“[Children] deserve more time in a rich learning environment, interacting with others, and growing deeper across academic and developmental domains,” said Hendren and Jones, and this is certainly a model for education that TNCS valiantly upholds. That’s not to say that TNCS won’t ever implement some form of testing, but because TNCS is proudly independent, “high stakes” will never coerce TNCS into sacrificing its core values to artificially inflate scores or, worse, to lose sight of the mission to inspire in students a lifelong desire to learn.

Says Head of School Alicia Danyali, “We are not forced to mandate standardized testing, but it would be good to know that we are more or less in line with other independent schools. Students also need to know how to take tests, and probably need the exposure.” She also explained that they’ll need some kind of picture of their early academic journey for secondary education and beyond. If Mrs. Danyali and her administration as well as the school Co-Founders deem it beneficial, a test may be implemented in future. To date, they are exploring what the Educational Records Bureau (ERB) has to offer independent schools and are making sure they find just the right fit for TNCS.

See Standardized Testing: It’s Time To Talk about It for more on TNCS’s views on this important topic.

TNCS’s Inaugural Town Hall

On Thursday, January 9th, The New Century School held its first-ever Town Hall meeting for an auditorium full of eager participants. The Town Hall was conceived, says Admissions Director and Town Hall Moderator Robin Munro, because “We are a new school, so meetings like this are critical. We will have a meeting like this once a year for families to get a state of the school update and have a forum to ask questions.” The meeting followed directly on the heels of an Elementary Information Night, and the two presentations together made for an informative and synergistic event. What made it especially effective is the obvious level of planning and organization that went into it as well as the efforts made to accommodate families to quite an extensive degree. Free childcare with dinner, free parking, and wine and hors’ d’oeuvres were some of the inducements to attend, but the real attraction was in being able to submit questions well ahead of time to allow the event speakers to shape the discussion accordingly. This evening was clearly for us.

Thus, as Ms. Munro said, TNCS’s status as a new school means that it is still maturing, becoming itself. To alleviate the uncertainty inherent in that development process, the Town Hall gave the audience some transparency into the inner workings of our beloved school. Based on the topics submitted by attendees, Ms. Munro organized the overall discussion into seven umbrella categories: Growth, TNCS Leadership, Tuition and Fundraising, Standardized Testing, TNCS Community: Internal and External, Life after TNCS, and TNCS Policies. These topics combine to provide a comprehensive overview of the school and its future direction. Following is a synopsis.

Growth

The growth category was subdivided into Projections, Instruction Space, and Curriculum. Projections: What are the school’s growth plans for the future? Individual questions under this topic centered on whether expansion into a Middle School is likely and were mostly submitted by parents whose children are currently in the elementary program (or are about to be) and hoping to stay awhile! One family is even considering moving to within walking distance of the school. Are enrollment numbers supporting this plan? A resounding yes! is the unequivocal answer. For enrollment, near-future projections are 150–200 students school wide (i.e., including preschool, elementary, and middle school). The plan is to stay bottom heavy—keep the preschool large because it feeds the upper levels but there is a natural attrition rate as families move or change schools as their particular situations warrant. Here is the breakdown:

  • Pre-primary (~24 students): Maintain Spanish and Mandarin Chinese immersion.
  • Primary, including K (70–90 students): Maintain Montessori model with mixed-age, small class sizes in a 3-year cycle.
  • Elementary + Middle School (60~80 students): Expand to four or five mixed-age/mixed-grade classes, including 1st and 2nd (and “pre-1st” as needed), 3rd and 4th, 5th and 6th, and 7th and 8th.

Regarding elementary, the target size is no more than 16 students per class to allow for TNCS’s signature individualized, differentiated instruction. TNCS is currently approved to teach through Grade 5 and will continue annually adding a grade through Grade 8. TNCS “officially” follows basic Maryland age guidelines in grade assignments (i.e., must be age 5 by September 1st to enter Kindergarten and so forth), but internally, students are treated as individuals, not as a level. Some fun elementary facts include:

  • In 5 years, TNCS will graduate its first 8th-grade student
  • The TNCS Middle School will “open” Fall 2016
  • TNCS’s first 8th-grade class will graduate Spring 2019 (whoa!)

Sound like a too-lofty goal? Not when you consider that, so far, TNCS has hit every major planned milestone, including opening an Elementary in Fall 2010, launching a Greenhouse in Spring 2011, implementing a School Lunch Program in Fall 2011, establishing a Gymnasium and Performance Space in Fall 2012, and bringing in Gerstung gym equipment and the Imagination Playground in Spring 2013. With this kind of momentum, not only is a Middle School a certainty, but a playground redesign for a Fall 2014 launch is also well within reach (see below)! Finally, while all of this goes on around us, internally, the administration will be renewing their  focus on school infrastructure, such as curricula, materials, teacher and student retention, etc.

Instruction Space: How will the school accommodate future classes? This question is immediately relevant. With a Kindergarten class about to join the ranks of elementary in a few months, another classroom as well as another teacher are on the horizon. Said Ms. Munro, “We have the physical space to grow. Next semester we are moving the library to shelves lining the halls, and the art room to the existing library to open up a third classroom.” Thus, all three elementary classrooms will be on the third floor. The library occupying the hall spaces is sheer genius—the constant exposure to books will likely trigger increased interest in reading them! Even bigger news is that TNCS now owns the 710 building as well as the 724 S. Ann St. location, providing an additional 1,500 square feet of space on two levels. Already home to The Lingo Leap and to the pre-primary classrooms, making use of other parts of this building is a logical next step. A Middle School Science Lab will eventually occupy part of this space.

Finally, to round out TNCS’s cozy but expanding campus, big plans are afoot for a playground redesign. “This is the year to plan and make changes to create a space that can work for our preschool, our elementary students, and our future middle school students,” said Ms. Munro and asked for parent volunteers to get creative and make some suggestions. Other sources TNCS will tap for design inspiration are MICA students, who might get class credits or other incentives for their assistance. We don’t want “big plastic structures,” said Ms. Munro, “and you’ll be relieved to hear that we want to get rid of the rocks!” (This last is a nod to the parents of some of the younger students whose pockets are always full of washing machine–destroying pebbles.)

Curriculum: What is the curriculum for Upper Elementary and Middle School? Questions here were very specific. Parents want to know what the curriculum will “look like” as the students mature away from the lower Montessori levels. Will there be a Chinese and Spanish language program,  additional after-school enrichment, physical fitness testing, musical instrument instruction? How will TNCS deal with Common Core standards, if at all? How does TNCS compare with local public and private schools in terms of academic achievement?

Being independent and committed to small-classroom size, TNCS can and will “do it all.” Art, music, foreign languages, and physical education will continue to be spotlighted—yet not at the expense of rigorous instruction in science, math, and language arts (reading, writing spelling, etc.). Head of School Alicia Danyali addressed these curriculum questions; please read TNCS Elementary Information Night: A School Grows and Flourishes for details. Regarding Common Core, which is often vilified in the media, TNCS is fortunate to be able to cherry-pick the best of that approach and implement selectively. It’s not all bad, she says, and “[We] use it when it speaks to what’s going on in the classroom.” The guiding principle of Common Core is to promote independent learning, problem-solving ability, and critical thinking, all ideals very much in line with TNCS’s philosophy. It’s important to note that rather than dictating the sequence of the day, Common Core at TNCS supplements what’s already happening.

True to TNCS form, however, simply continuing is categorically insufficient as a future plan. TNCS was built on innovation in education, and the Co-Executive Directors Roberta Faux and Jennifer Lawner continuously explore new approaches to inspire kids to learn and be excited about that learning. The International Baccalaureate is one such program on the horizon. “The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect,” through challenging and rigorous education programs. Elementary teachers Ms. DuPrau and Ms. Roberts also chimed in to assure parents that they “don’t just show up and teach whatever they feel like that particular day.” Expectations are high, yet teachers are never asked to simply “teach to the test.” They have freedom to accomplish their goals how they deem suitable, based on and tailored specifically to the individuals they teach.

TNCS Leadership

This topic was evidently on the minds of many TNCS families and seemed to center on whether a Board of Directors exists or will be appointed. Said Moderator Ms. Munro, “The simple answer to this questions is ‘No,’ and the deeper answer really starts to address how the school was founded, the state of the school today, and where the school is headed in the future. I think [the Co-Founders/Co-Executive Directors] can speak a bit more to how the school was founded and to some of the advantages of staying small and not having a Board of Directors at this stage of development.”

Excuse the oversimplification, but, basically, the school is still coming into its own and needs some room to establish firm footing before transforming into something else entirely. Let’s face it, we like the school, and “our kids have benefited tremendously from what [the Co-Founders] have built,” as one dad in the audience eloquently put it. From what we’ve seen so far, we can trust that it’s headed in the right direction.

Said Ms. Lawner, “Staying small allows us to really use peoples’ talents, to cultivate those talents the same way we cultivate your children’s talents and skills.” She elaborated on the school’s beginnings and how she and Ms. Faux investigated setting up as a non-profit or funding the school through grants but quickly found that grant money tends to go to charter schools, which are bound by restrictions that TNCS simply can’t support. “We were able to self-fund and grow this, and it’s working very well” she said. “In this stage of our development, we feel that staying small allows us to make the kind of bold decisions we feel we need to make.” She used Mandarin instruction as an example of something that likely would not get approval via a grant route.

A parental advisory board (a 501c, for example) is something very different from getting and even acting on parent feedback—which is welcome and encouraged, added Ms. Faux. “We are doing something different and not running everything through a committee—the way every other school has been run,” she said. She left the possibility open of becoming a 501c school in future, so long as that aligns with the school’s values at that time. Also, changing to non-profit status is not easily achieved. The Co-Founders roles, moreover, would be unclear. If someone is ready to endow the school, say in 20 years, then that might be the time to become a proper non-profit. In the present, however, as one parent put it, the advantages conferred by for-profit status far outweigh those of non-profit status.

Ms. Munro stepped up once more to review some of the ways that parents can make their voices heard in school-related issues. Again, feedback is always welcome and encouraged, and meetings such as the now-annual Town Hall, Open Houses, and Information Nights are ideal forums for asking questions and weighing in. Another  suggestion she made was to formalize a PTA-esque parent committee through the Parent Liaison. “We are open,” she said. “If what you want is a formal quarterly meeting, we’ll make that happen.” The message is clear: Structurally, things need to stay as they are for the near future, but within that framework, there’s plenty of maneuverability to accommodate families’ reasonable desires.

Tuition and Fundraising

This question came up from parents wanting to know how to help raise money for the school (thanks parents!). Here again, grants probably are not within TNCS’s reach. For now, the small annual tuition increase every year and the expanding student body may suffice.

Within the for-profit structure, a separate 501c will exist soon to fund scholarships and thus make TNCS accessible to a wider student pool.

Standardized Testing

“Will TNCS be implementing standardized testing?” was another popular question. “To be in line with the other private schools, it makes sense,” said Ms. Danyali. “We are leaning toward the ERB, but it’s not set in stone yet. We want something that would match this independent, dual-language learning environment.” According to the ERB–Lighting the Pathways to Learning website (ERB stands for Education Resources Bureau), “ERB is the only not-for-profit member educational services organization offering assessments for both admission and achievement for independent and public schools PreK–grade 12. . . With the diverse needs and requirements in today’s academic landscape, ERB takes a customized approach to our services.” Ms. Danyali says she is grateful that TNCS isn’t forced to implement standardized testing, “but students also need to know how to take a test—it’s important to have that exposure.”

Such testing, albeit less pressurized than it would be in a public school setting, will also prepare students for matriculation into secondary school and beyond.

TNCS Community: Internal and External

With the internal community covered in multiple ways throughout the discussion, Moderator Ms. Munro directed this portion to the broader community, focusing on partnerships with the city, community service, and even potential environmental hazards. In the latter category, chromium exposure from the piercing of the capped old Allied Chemical facility at Harbor Point during construction of the new Exelon building was specifically mentioned, and TNCS administration has been assured that Baltimore City has taken the appropriate steps to ensure the population’s safety. This is in contrast to how that situation was formerly managed, evidently. Councilman Jim Kraft has been with TNCS “every step of the way” to help, said Ms. Lawner.

As for community service, there’s usually something going on to help our city at TNCS. Please read TNCS Gives Thanks By Giving Back, Heifer International,  and TNCS Holiday Outreach Programs for details.

Life after TNCS

Though we didn’t get the chance to address this one head on, a theme throughout the discussion emerged that could serve to answer questions about how well students will be prepared for the next steps (whatever those might be) in their academic careers and lives. With the attention to whole-child development, the carefully differentiated instruction, the administration policies that ensure that TNCS doesn’t exist in a vacuum but is part of the city and state educational corps, etc. all combine to guarantee not just preparedness but that the TNCS-educated student will thrive in his or her future environs.

TNCS Policies

Having run out of time, the Town Hall had to end before all questions were addressed. Important issues such as how and when to introduce sex education will have to wait until the next opportunity. In the meantime, keep these topical questions coming, parents!