What happens at The New Century School does not stay at The New Century School. Instead, the magic that fills each and every day enriches the lives of the students who experience it far beyond the classroom. Imaginations are sparked, perspectives broadened, values instilled, skills honed, spirits of adventure awakened. All while students pursue rigorous academics in an environment that allows them to learn and progress at their own paces.
Although this last attribute is typically understood to mean that a student who is not ready to work at a standard age level is not forced to try to do so and therefore burn out, and that’s of course the case at TNCS where applicable, it often means the inverse here—students are not asked to wait for anyone to catch up to them but can soar as high as they so desire.
Among the TNCS community, we have watched this magic transform our children lives, but it can be difficult to articulate to someone unfamiliar with the school. Sometimes, it just needs to be seen to be believed. So, this week’s Immersed is trying something a little different. Throughout the past years, we visited classrooms unannounced to get inside glimpses of what any given day looks like in each division. You can bet there’s almost always something special going on. Maybe that’s because with daily triple language learning, visual and performing arts, an emphasis on service learning, and a pervasive atmosphere of inquiry, there’s just no such thing as quotidian at this school. We invite you to look closely at the montages to follow. There are worlds to see.
A Day in the Life: Preschool Division
TNCS’s littlest learners in the preprimary classrooms, ages 2–3, focus on social and emotional development. They learn to work in groups and cooperate with their peers. They are immersed in either Mandarin Chinese or Spanish, so, as they cultivate language skills, they do so bilingually. Take a recent visit from Spanish-speaking Clifford the Red Dog and Pete the Cat. In addition to being exposed to language in all forms, making music and art are their main in-class pursuits, and artists are invited to classrooms to present their age-appropriate art. As students are ready, they begin to explore the Montessori materials they’ll see regularly in the primary classroom.
In the TNCS primary Montessori classroom, students ages 3 to 5 develop the ability to concentrate—to start, work through and complete a given task. They use Montessori materials to hone fine and gross motor skills both individually and in small groups. They continue to develop socially and emotionally and begin to refine their language skills in, now three, languages. Art and music are daily pursuits as is an emphasis on peace and kindness.
Spanish lesson on rainforest animals.
This tiny TNCS tot is exploring multiple dimensions with the Graduated Cylinder Blocks.
This TNCS preprimary student practices her fastening skills on the Montessori Button Frame. She is well on her way to independent dressing!
A quiet, cozy moment with a friend in the peace corner.
Cracking an egg into a bread recipe.
Tidying up a spill with the crumber.
Cleaning the chalkboard.
A Day in the Life: Elementary Division
In elementary grades, K through 5th, academics become more rigorous, but the focus on visual and performing arts, music, and languages also amps up, with dedicated teachers in each subject, making for a truly well-rounded education. Fostering independence while celebrating community, the elementary program encourages students to ask questions then figure out how to find the answers. Field trips to local spots of interest as well as in nearby towns happen at least quarterly.
As elementary students age up, they move to building north, which they share with middle schoolers. Here, service learning expands to include the outside community as well as the campus.
A Day in the Life: Middle School Division
When TNCS students hit the big time, a lot changes for them at school. Academic preparation intensifies, as they ready for high school, but research shows that middle schoolers can flounder socially and emotionally, so TNCS students are given loads of opportunities to try out their burgeoning independence in new ways and develop self-confidence and self-agency.
This peek inside some typical days at TNCS (where a typical day is anything but typical) should make it clear—TNCS students have the world at their fingertips.
As The New Century School continues to grow and develop, day-to-day operations and school supervision have also become increasingly complex. For this reason, TNCS school Co-Founders/Co-Executive Directors Roberta Faux and Jennifer Lawner, along with current Head of School Alicia Danyali, decided it was time to expand the administrative structure. Starting this summer, Baltimore native daughter Shara Khon Duncan will become year-round Head of School, while Mrs. Danyali will be Head of the Lower School as well as schoolwide Dean of Students. This framework will increase operational efficiency, while allowing both Heads of School to fully engage in their respective roles as not just administrators, but also what they are at heart—deeply committed educators.
On May 3rd, TNCS hosted a Meet & Greet with Mrs. Duncan (“Shara Khon” to parents) to give attendees the chance to meet her in person and snack on coffee and refreshments provided by the Garden Tuck Shop. Immersed subsequently interviewed Mrs. Duncan to give those unable to attend the Meet & Greet an opportunity to get to know her as well.
As you’ll see, she is an eloquent, thoughtful speaker, with a warm, engaging manner.
Meet TNCS’s New Head of School!
Immersed: How did you become the TNCS Head of the School?
Shara Khon: I was drawn to TNCS’s unique distinction of having such a valued foreign language program, unlike any other that I’ve seen, where students learn two foreign languages. And music and art is such an integral part of the program as well. As a teacher of Spanish, my subject has always been a special or an extra, but, here, the specials rule. That really drew me, because things that are often seen as extras are really seen where they should be here—as an invaluable part of a child’s education. They are part of how a child as a whole should be seen and just as important as what are now known as the “core subjects.” They all fit together to help educate a child.
Other aspects that drew me to TNCS are the project-based learning and how instruction is differentiated for students, which is just amazing. To be able to do that, where it’s not just rote learning, and providing the opportunity for students to learn through doing is just fantastic. I’m really excited to be a part of that.
Immersed: Can you explain a little about your history with Spanish and why you became a Spanish teacher?
Shara Khon: When I was a child, my mom exposed me to a lot of languages. She thought language was important and would learn as much as she could—and this was before the Internet and YouTube. Spanish, Swahili, French, Hebrew—whatever she could find, she would try to learn it and take the time to help me learn as well. So, the love of language started for me at a very young age.
I then took German from 2nd grade through 12th grade and continued it in college at Dartmouth. I added Spanish in 9th grade because I thought it was an important language to have; I could see that it was a growing language in the United States. When I got to college, I majored in Spanish, and I’ve spent quite a lot of time living in different places. I studied in Mexico, for example, and I lived in Turkey for a summer via American Field Service (AFS) when I was in high school, which was wonderful. That gave me my first bug of spending some time living with people and getting to know other cultures, which is really important to me. I don’t like to travel as just a tourist; I’d rather spend time with people and get to know them. I can be a tourist here. I’d rather go and learn about the people.
Immersed: What made you decide on Turkey as a destination?
Shara Khon: Interestingly, you don’t usually get to pick. I actually wound up originally with Sri Lanka, but the day that I found that out, the Sri Lankan Civil War started. So, AFS pulled everyone out and gave us a choice between Greece and Turkey. I figured I would probably go to Greece anyway one day, so I chose Turkey in order not to miss that opportunity. That’s the kind of person I am: I like to choose the road less traveled. And I just loved it. It’s wonderful. I’m still in contact with my Turkish family, and my youngest sister is named after my Turkish sister. We all have a very special bond. These kinds of things are what are important to me—spending time with other people in their cultures and learning their languages are really key to me.
Immersed: How many languages do you speak?
Shara Khon: Not a lot anymore. I speak primarily Spanish now, although I used to speak German as well. Now I understand German better than I can speak it. Likewise, I now understand written Hebrew better than I can speak it. But, if you drop me somewhere, I can pick it back up. I can fight my way out, but you lose it if you don’t use it.
Immersed: It sounds like a lot of your passion for language and culture originated with your mother. What do you think it is about languages that had such a draw for her?
Shara Khon: She wanted to learn Spanish because of “I Love Lucy.” She wanted to know what Ricky was saying—at least that’s what she told me. She has a wonderful sense of humor. But she’s always been one to love other cultures. Take my name, for example. She loved Rudyard Kipling books, so I’m named after Shere Khan, the tiger from The Jungle Book. My mom was always one to try different things and explore other cultures. She would make kimchi when I was a kid, for instance. It was amazing.
Another example is that most of my friends at the time were Jewish and went to Hebrew school, and I wanted to enroll in Hebrew school. My grandfather was a baptist minister and took me to a local synagogue to try to get me into Hebrew school. It would have meant converting to Judaism, but my grandfather the black Baptist minister was going to try to make it happen for me if I wanted to do it. It’s amazing how much they valued language for me. It all worked out in the end, because my mom was a police officer and worked at the training academy with someone who spoke Hebrew, and he would teach me here and there. I did more of it in college. I was the only person like me in the Hebrew class in college. In fact, I think I was actually the only non-Jewish person in that class. I just love learning languages and about cultures.
Immersed: Where did your career take you after graduating from Dartmouth?
Shara Khon: When I graduated, the first Gulf War was underway, and corporate recruiting just wasn’t happening. I had always wanted to teach, but I thought I wouldn’t be able to afford it, having graduated with a lot of student loan debt. However, since there was no corporate recruiting, I figured I would teach for a bit and wound up teaching for 7 years. I first taught for 1 year at Purnell School, which was a boarding school in New Jersey for girls and a great place to start my teaching career. It was dedicated to students with learning issues, so I learned how to teach to different learning styles and how to celebrate everything about a student, not just her academics. Particularly because it was a boarding school, you could see other things about a student that weren’t just in the classroom. That was something wonderful, so I tried to keep that as a piece of my teaching—trying to find things that a student loves and really try to hold that up and remind them that class isn’t everything, to remind them that ‘yes, you are really special and wonderful.’ I then returned to Baltimore and taught at Bryn Mawr for 6 years.
At 30, I decided to go into the corporate world because I wanted to see what it was like. I don’t like to live with regrets, and I didn’t want to turn around one day and say, ‘why didn’t I try?’ So, I worked at Legg Mason for the next 5 years. I started off as an office manager, then did some marketing and investor relations specialists kinds of things with their private equity group. It was a lot of long hours and a lot of work, but it was a great experience, and I’m glad I took the opportunity to do it. But, I’m also glad that’s not the path I took. I needed to spend more time with my very young children, Mary and Marina.
So I stayed home for a year and got very involved in their lives and wound up teaching at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, where they attended. The principal at the time had been trying to get me to teach there for years because I taught her daughter at Bryn Mawr and talked me into first just helping out as a parent. I thought, ‘they’re little, they’re scary, they cry, I don’t want to do that,’ and wound up loving teaching elementary and being with elementary kids. I was an assistant in a kindergarten classroom for a couple of years and loved it. I later taught middle school Spanish there.
When my youngest moved over to private school in 4th grade, I went back to private school because it didn’t make sense to be the only one on a public school schedule. So I switched to Calvert, and I’ve been there since.
Immersed: What do you think made you love teaching elementary so much?
Shara Khon: First and foremost, the students are always happy to see you. How can you have a bad day when people are happy to see you when you come to school? And then, no day is ever the same, ever—you never know what they’re going to say or do. They keep it interesting. And when they make a connection, it is amazing—you can almost see the spark happen. They absorb everything, and one of the things that I’ve loved about teaching them Spanish is that almost everything I’ve thrown at them, they’ve done with no problem. And it’s all them. It’s not me. These kids have such a capacity to learn. If you give them the right environment, and you water them, they grow.
Immersed: Let’s now talk about what you’re going to do here at TNCS. How do you characterize your role as Head of School, your understanding of it?
Shara Khon: This summer I plan to take a look at some behind-the-scenes operations to help us run a little bit more smoothly, like solidifying staff roles, getting some more systems in place, prepping for teacher professional development to start the year off right, and taking a look at our curriculum vertically. I want to look at each one of our subjects and how they flow and connect from grade to grade going up. That process will continue throughout the year, but this summer I’ll be seeing where we stand right now and start getting the map and process set, so that when the teachers come back in the fall they can have input into how we proceed. They are the ones doing the teaching, so they need to a have a say in processes.
The next big thing will be our 8th grade. We will be working out that process of getting them in high school, so there are things that I will get started this summer toward that end, like finding out what they need to do and who needs to do it and getting that down. I’m very much a person who likes to have all procedures clearly outlined, and I really want to make sure we have a good handle on how that operates.
Immersed: Do you think that all of your experience at other jobs informs your organizational abilities?
Shara Khon: I see a lot of spreadsheets in my future. There are a lot of things from Legg Mason that will definitely help me with that. There are a lot of things from managing people there and doing some management with my team at Calvert that will help as well.
Immersed: I think a question that a lot of parents may have is, how will yours and Alicia’s roles work together?
Shara Khon: I think that’s a good question, and some of it will probably evolve over time. Alicia is going to be the Head of Preprimary and Dean of Students, and I’m Head of School, mainly K–8. I’m sure there will be some overlap in roles, but usually a Dean of Students handles any issues with students that come up. I think her restorative practice work will be a major part of her Deanship. I also imagine a large piece of it will be community outreach.
We’ll be feeling our way along as we go, but at this point we feel good that we are going be able to work together well. Our shared goal overall is to make sure that TNCS is the best school that it can be, so whatever we can do to work together to make that happen, that’s what we’re going to do.
Immersed: To wrap up, is there anything else you want parents to know?
Shara Khon: For me, the children are our primary objective, and what we need to do to help them achieve their goals is to work together as productively as possible. I firmly believe that as parents, teachers, and staff, we all need to do the best that we can to all work together to help our kids. Making that relationship as productive and communicative as it can be is really important. Sometimes those communications can be tough on either end, but it’s really important that we keep the lines of communication open and be ready to listen as well as to share information. The more we know, the better we can help students. The more we can share, the better we can help students.
I really want to hear from parents over the summer. I will be here starting June 18th, so if you are around and want to pop by, definitely let me know by email or calling. I am interested to hear what your thoughts are about the school. I may not always agree, but I do like to listen and gather as much information as possible before making decisions. I also consider all aspects as much as possible. I don’t like to have just one opinion, and I’m not looking for people to always simply agree with me. I’m also pretty straightforward, and I don’t mince words, so you don’t have to worry about trying to figure me out. What you see is what you get.