TNCS Head of School Wraps up the 2018–2019 School Year!

Shara Khon Duncan has been Head of School at The New Century School for a full year.  Immersed had another sit-down with her for a nostalgic look back at her first year, what goals she set and accomplished, what went well, what she’s continuing to address, and what she’ll tackle next.

Immediately, Sra. Duncan expressed her pleasure and gratitude for what she called a great year.

It’s really great—I love it. Friends, family, and former colleagues will say things like, ‘you don’t look tired enough,’ or ‘you’re still smiling; how is that possible?’, and it’s because I love what I do. It’s not a job. I love coming to this place everyday, where I have such wonderful people to work with as well as wonderful students and families. I tell people that this is one of the most diverse environments that I’ve been in. It’s a blessing to be here.

Diversity and languages are, indeed, important to Sra. Duncan, who was a Diversity Coordinator at one of her former schools. She is amazed that TNCS doesn’t even need one—it organically attracts a culturally diverse population and is inherently inclusive and respectful of the community’s various needs. And the languages really elevate the school for her; in fact, that’s what originally drew her to TNCS (see TNCS Welcomes Shara Khon Duncan as Head of School for her rich history with languages). She gets to use her adopted language Spanish daily, and she is even picking up some Mandarin, thanks to the perseverance of Li Laoshi. Sra. Duncan joked that, so far, she can tell you whether it’s raining or not. “In all seriousness, though, it’s just wonderful to hear the students speaking in Spanish and Mandarin,” said Sra. Duncan. It amazes me to hear kindergarten students who just started in the fall and spoke only English singing in both languages at the spring concert and sounding like they’ve been doing it all their lives. It gives me chills.”

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Goals Accomplished

The year went really fast in a lot of ways, and in a lot of ways I feel like I’ve been here a long time,” said Sra. Duncan. “It presented some challenges in the sense that there was a lot of work to do just putting systems into place, trying to make it so that we can run more efficiently in the background, which was one of my goals.” She explained that in order to be as visible and out and about on campus as she’d like to be, she needed to first work behind the scenes to establish a framework.

One such system is a new student management system, which the TNCS community will learn about in the coming weeks and will launch for the 2019–2020 school year. It’s called Blackbaud, and it will provide a much more efficient platform for communication—think school delay and closing announcements—as well as much, much more. Staff will be able to readily send out notifications, and teachers will have individual web pages that parents can access to find out what’s going on in the classroom rather than receiving such information from a sometimes unwieldy email platform. Resource boards will also be available to house other kinds of information so parents don’t have to go spelunking through their inboxes to find out, for example, what is the requested dress for an upcoming student performance. It’s right there in one easy-to-access place.

“That process of vetting various systems to see which one would work best for us took a good deal of my time,” said Sra. Duncan, “but we established teams, and I talked to other schools. Things like that take time; you want to do your due diligence. There’s no one system that works well for everyone, perfectly, but our hope is that this one will probably work the best for us.”

Blackbaud will also facilitate the application process as well as the administrative workflow for teachers and other staff so that they can maximize their time. “When you’re a small school, you wear many hats. But anything we can do to make people’s jobs better, so they work smarter not harder, is really important. We can, including me, find ways to use our other skills more effectively,” said Sra. Duncan. Curriculum is one thing that is very much on her mind that Blackbaud will help streamline.

See what other successes the year held in Thoughts on the First Half of the Year from TNCS Head of School Shara Khon Duncan, and read on for what’s to come!

What’s Next

One important change is with the upcoming implementation of i-Ready supplemental work. “We used to use SuccessMaker, but it didn’t really work for us the way we wanted it to this year. What we found through our research is that i-Ready will give students the ability to practice their skills in ELA and Math in a classroom rotation,” said Sra. Duncan. The advantage is that, as a supplemental program rather than a primary curriculum, it will help diagnose any problem areas students might be having and feed that information to the teacher.

Narrowing the focus a bit, with TNCS having graduated its first-ever 8th-grade class this past year, the Middle School is very much on everyone’s mind. One thing that this class showed Sra. Duncan is that test-taking skills are critical. “It’s a double-edged sword,” she said. “Being a school that doesn’t do standardized testing, per se, we nevertheless have to prepare our students for the standardized testing they’ll need to enter high school. So, we’re working on test-taking skills for our middle school students, in particular, and they all took the ISEE test this past year.”

She says she wants to make the TNCS Middle School the best it can possibly be and is focusing on strengthening that program over the summer.

Our goal is to help people understand that we go all the way through 8th grade. We want people to see this as a school that doesn’t end after preschool or even after elementary, it ends at 8th grade, and we want families in for the long haul. Families who enter in preprimary or primary believe that something is good about our program, so why not see how that can continue in their child’s life? They know that language is important, and they get to see it in action. I’m in awe everyday of what our teachers do, but we want that to continue all the way up. So that’s something we are working on.

Another thing the first crop of 8th-graders revealed to Sra. Duncan and to Curriculum Coordinator Adriana DuPrau, TNCS’s “resident expert on high school applications,” is that middle schoolers must get used to doing daily homework, so they increased the amount mid-year. “That may sound like not a popular thing, but it helps them get that time management piece down that they really need in order to be prepared for high school,” explained Sra. Duncan. “Students adapted to it wonderfully, and parents were right along with us!”

With the test pilot of increased homework having gone so well, this new initiative will continue for the coming year. Additionally, research and other long-term projects are on the horizon. “There’s a lot more that we need to teach our students, such as understanding how to use and be critical of technology. There are pieces that they have to learn about the whole process, and what’s important is helping them understand what goes into the process of researching. It’s almost as important as the writing process,” said Sra. Duncan.

She continued: “We feel very good about our first graduating middle school class, and we learned an awful lot about the whole process. Ultimately, we just want to make sure that we have everything we need to make sure our students are prepared for when it’s time to move on from here.”

It’s a Partnership

With everything that Sra. Duncan and the rest of the school is doing to ensure that TNCS students are learning and flourishing, it’s vital to remember that parents also play important roles in this process. One big theme of Sra. Duncan’s is the importance of two-way communication and that her door is open. When community members hear things thirdhand, for example, but don’t bring their concerns forward, uncertainty spreads. “When people are talking to others about something they’ve heard regarding the school, but they don’t come to me, I can’t address it. If you have a concern, I’m happy to talk to you about it,” she said.

She’s going to be straight with you, but she also really wants to hear what you have to say and is going to be very fair about that. “I know I have more peace of mind if I just say my piece or ask my questions. I don’t want anyone to ever feel like they can’t come talk to us. This is your child. Come talk to us. We may not agree, but we’ve got to talk about it. I get it—I’m a mom, too.”

A second important theme is that TNCS is a work in progress—a very innovative and exciting work in progress—and that there’s no such thing as a perfect school.

The advantage is that we will always keep trying to be better. We are a young school, but that’s a good thing, because we’re trying to figure out how to make this work beautifully every single day. We are trying to learn from every little thing that doesn’t quite work the right way. We fix what doesn’t work, and we figure out how to do more of what goes great. This hidden gem down here is pretty amazing, and when people really find out about it, they are duly amazed.

Final Thoughts

When asked what the main thing she wanted parents to know about her first year at TNCS, Sra. Duncan said: “This is what I was made to do. This is my thing. I’ve been working toward this my whole life, and I didn’t know it. It’s just so wonderful. This is my place. I love it. I really love it.”

And, with characteristic good humor: “Also please don’t run over me while I’m directing traffic. Please.”

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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!

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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!”

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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.”

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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!