Meet Erika Johnson: TNCS’s New Head of School!

At The New Century School, the 2022–2023 school year is going to be an especially consequential one. It not only marks a decade since opening as TNCS, but it has also brought the TNCS community a new Head of School. As Head, Erika Johnson has an important message for us: One school, One program, One community.

Indeed, as we’ll see, Ms. Johnson sees her role, at least initially, as one of unifying all of the many wonderful threads that have made TNCS what it is into one cohesive, beautiful tapestry.

Meet Erika Johnson!

Let’s start with how Ms. Johnson came to be TNCS’s new Head of School—this story may surprise you! With the former Interim Head’s time fulfilled, TNCS was actively recruiting candidates. But when TNCS Co-Founders/Co-Executive Directors Roberta Faux and Jennifer Lawner met Ms. Johnson in the context of seeking Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) instruction for TNCS students, they knew they were speaking to a natural leader and asked her to be Head of School instead! (And, looking ahead a bit, the theme of DEI will come up again.)

Background

To back up, Ms. Johnson and her husband are originally from Baltimore. They traced quite a route around the country before returning here in 2014, however. Ms. Johnson attended McDonogh School from elementary through high school, then earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Maryland. From there, she went on to pursue a Master’s degree in Liberal Studies from Loyola University. (And she’s not done yet—next year, she’ll enter a doctoral program at American University for an Ed.D. in Educational Policy and Leadership.)

Amidst all that education, she still found time to get married in 2000 and start a family in 2002. Her twin boys were born in Atlanta, GA, where she was teaching kindergarten and after-school programs with the Boys and Girls Club of America. In 2005, the Johnsons relocated to Oklahoma City, OK, where they welcomed a daughter. There, Ms. Johnson taught middle school, and Mr. Johnson was a youth pastor. Soon after, he was called to lead a church in Dallas, TX, where they remained from 2008 to 2014. While in Dallas, Ms. Johnson homeschooled her three children and helped her husband build relationships with the community, such as by offering a food pantry. An avid advocate of literacy, she handed out books to the young people coming through the food pantry line.

If you’re starting to see some themes emerge, you’re on the right track. “I’ve always been in the classroom in some capacity,” said Ms. Johnson. Whether that’s in an actual classroom or in an ad hoc classroom taking place around the dining room table, along the food pantry line, or in her childhood bedroom as she taught her dolls to read, Ms. Johnson is a born educator. She describes being “plucked” from her congregation by the leader of the youth ministry to start teaching Sunday school lessons at the age of 11. “For me, those lessons always led back to teaching reading. Literacy has always been very important to me, so I was introducing stories and phonics and all these things through Sunday school lessons, and I’ve been teaching ever since,” she explained.

“Diversity Is Not Visual”

As for how the Johnsons wound up back in Baltimore, they returned to take over the elder Mr. Johnson’s tree removal service so he could retire. One of Ms. Johnson’s positions back on her home turf involved serving as Director of DEI at Notre Dame Preparatory School. “My heart is in the private school world,” she said.

As a student of color at McDonogh for 12 years, I am acutely aware that all students need an advocate. Now more than ever, when diversity is not visual, students need advocates not just in the classroom but within the administration so that the entire organization is able to shift to meet the needs of all students. There was a time when diversity could be relegated to Black and white. Today, diversity means so much more, and often one’s identity cannot be seen with the eyes. Our education systems must teach inclusion as we grow awareness about the complexity of identity.

And that brings us to TNCS.

Erika Johnson at TNCS

Ms. Johnson started at TNCS at the end of the last school year, taking those last couple of months to observe. She did, however, jump in and assist with some immediate needs around campus, so she got some on-the-job training. Since then, she has accomplished quite a bit.

“One School, One Program, One Community”

Right away, Ms. Johnson noticed that a lot was happening around her. Staff and faculty members were working diligently at their tasks, but not necessarily doing it “together.” “Part of the plan that I’ve set forth for the Leadership Team is to create One school, One program, One community. This unifies us so that the preschool is not isolated from the K through 8 program and vice versa. We’re really hoping to help families understand that what we begin at 2 years will walk with those students up through 8th grade,” she explained.

As part of this unification mantra, Ms. Johnson in collaboration with her Leadership Team (Ann Marie Simonetti, Director of Admissions; Abby Hou, Director of Preschool; and Alexis Boyd, Director of Student Support), has created the “Portrait of a Graduate.” This launches from TNCS’s four Core Values of compassion, service, respect, and courage and defines graduates by five traits, including:

  • Authentic global citizen
  • Inquisitive lifelong learner
  • Reflective communicator and collaborator
  • Creative problem-solver
  • Inclusive leader

“These are the things that we want to see from our 8th-graders as they move on to high school, but this also gives our faculty and staff a vision for who they have in their classroom—that everything they’re doing should be linked to the development of these traits,” said Ms. Johnson.

Another unification measure TNCS has implemented under Ms. Johnson’s leadership concerns the former TNCS Parent Council, which has now been renamed Family Partnership and will merge with the volunteering arm. Instead of the former Classroom Parent, that role has transitioned to Family Representative. “We’re trying to use more inclusive language and to demonstrate our understanding that families come in many different forms,” she explained. Also new this year, the Leadership Team will participate in the monthly Family Partnership meetings. They hope to build a strong link between the Family Community and the Administration.

“Sit and Steep in the Community”

With all that Ms. Johnson has already accompIished, she is careful to not overdo it so early. She explains it this way: “People ask what my vision for TNCS is, and I think the reality is that nobody can come in and cast vision for an organization they don’t know. I need a year to sit and steep in the community. I need to get to know the available resources and the curriculum, so that I can cast a vision. My hope is that the Portrait of a Graduate will resonate with the community. It really is who TNCS had already declared themselves to be. Now, how do we activate a plan to ensure success for each student?”

While she is developing this vision, she has a request of the community: Please be patient with us. “The leadership team is brand new. We are trying to honor the program as it has been designed while also remaining true to our Montessori inspiration and multilingual focus. We’re also trying to implement the necessary infrastructure to make those things possible. That’s going to take a bit of patience from everyone in the community,” she said.

In a true testament to all that Ms. Johnson has done so far for TNCS, this perspective is shared among the faculty and staff. Director of Admissions and Marketing and Montessori Programming Advisor Ann Marie Simonetti says, “Ms. Johnson joined us as a visionary leader with a deep respect for, and commitment to, the TNCS community. Her dedication to building relationships and deepening partnerships is evident in her daily interactions with students, families, faculty, and staff. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve alongside her on the Leadership Team as we endeavor to inspire lifelong learning and empower each member of our community to be their best.”


Although she gives her best to the TNCS community, Ms. Johnson balances work life with family life, and showers her loved ones, including King, her rescue Pit Bull, with love, laughter, joy, and respect.

TNCS Middle School Students Learn Grant Writing!

At The New Century School, service to the community is a core value. Dean of School/Head of Lower School Alicia Danyali has integrated service learning throughout the school year in many ways (read last week’s “check-in” with her for more on specific initiatives).

Last month, she  took it to the next level when she invited 11th-grade McDonogh School student Laya Neelakandan to present on her impressive experience with grant writing to support several charitable projects. She learned of Ms. Neelakandan last June after having collaborated with one of Ms. Neelakandan’s teachers (Mary-Catherine Irving) on a service project for her son’s school. Ms. Irving told her about Ms. Neelakandan’s remarkable accomplishments in service initiatives, and they discussed the possibility of a visit to TNCS. “I am excited that the students will have this opportunity, which the 6th- to 8th-grade students can use as a ‘jumping off point’ to initiate their own grant writing to support and fund service,” said Ms. Danyali.

Grant-Writing Presentation

tncs-grant-writing-presentationEven this early in her sure-to-be illustrious career, Ms. Neelakandan has already received 11 grants from five different foundations—she has been awarded every grant she has ever applied for!

After introducing herself, she began her presentation by describing her first grant-writing experience for The World We Want Foundation (WWWF). This organization promoted philanthropy among youth all around the world and was introduced to Ms. Neelakandan by Ms. Irving. Her proposal was designed to teach the importance of giving back at a young age, so she recruited groups of 1st-graders to make blankets, hygiene kits, and bags of trail mix to distribute to Baltimore’s homeless citizens.

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With her written grant proposal, she was first awarded enough to fund a couple of such projects. She next wrote a follow-up proposal to fund all of her projects and received three $1,000 grants over a 3-year period. This allowed her to expand her philanthropic efforts to include the India Project, which is a school supplies drive for Indian schools. She made and sold friendship pins to buy dictionaries and other supplies that she delivered in person in India.

tncs-grant-writing-presentationAfter a very successful run with WWWF, which closed down in 2015, Ms. Neelakandan went in search of a new project to support and came across Karma for Cara (K4C), which is based in Baltimore and is dedicated to “Empowering Youth to Repair Our World.” Following the online instructions, she applied for and won four $1,000 microgrants. With these, she was able to keep her already successful WWWF projects thriving as well as add a backpacks drive. She continues to support K4C.

She then learned about Disney and Youth Service America (YSA)’s 2017 Summer of Service Organization Grant and, to her surprise, won the $500 grant 2 years in a row. She says the experience “proved that I should be confident in myself and that I can change the world (and you can too!) and showed me that there are people out there who believe in the power of youth.”

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Ms. Neelakandan’s work has not gone unnoticed. Recently, the Orokawa Foundation (a grant-making organization in Towson, MD) approached her about funding her projects. She is using the money to establish a library at a domestic abuse shelter. TNCS students may be assisting her in this endeavor in the near future.

And—breaking news–in the days since she presented at TNCS, she has been awarded yet another grant in the amount of $150. Kindness Grows Here is a new foundation that awarded its first Annual Kid Kindness Grants this month! “[They] want kids with awesome ideas to submit applications for ways in which they can help spread kindness in their school, community, town, or neighborhood.”

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Ms. Neelakandan closed her TNCS presentation with some hard data (which has since been updated, given the new grant she just won):

  • She has raised $10,478 in the 6 years she has been doing these projects.
  • She has delivered over 150 handmade fleece blankets, 800 bags of trail mix, more than 1,200 sweet treats, 750 hygiene kits, and 300 backpacks.
  • She has directly helped over 1,250 less fortunate men, women, and children.

She has also been invited to speak at fundraisers, won awards, and influenced fellow students. With these mantras in mind, this is how she has done it:

  • There is no such thing as a small act of kindness.
  • Find your passion and use it to change the world.
  • Keep applying to different places and never get discouraged if it does not work out.
  • You have the power to change the world, and don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.
  • Ask questions, be a leader, be kind and empathetic.

Interview with Laya Neelakandan

Because the visionary Ms. Neelakandan had to return to school immediately following her presentation, she kindly agreed to an email interview for this piece, transcribed here.

How did you become interested in grant writing?

“When I was in 4th grade, my mentor, Mrs. Mary-Catherine Irving, asked me if I wanted to lead her class in service projects. She introduced me to the concept of microgrants, and, at the age of 10, I applied for and received my first grant. Since then, I have continued to immerse myself in grant writing to get support for the projects that I make for the homeless.”

Do you plan to go to college? What will you major in, if so?

“I do plan to go to college after I graduate high school. Though I’m not completely certain yet exactly what I want to major in, I’m very interested in English and writing and aspire to be a journalist.”

What future career do you plan to pursue?

“I want to pursue journalism as a future career and use the power of my words to make a difference in my community and highlight social justice causes.” [Ed. note: You go, girl!]

Can you describe your experience of presenting at The New Century School?

“Presenting at The New Century School was an amazing experience for me. I had never presented about my grant writing before, and I loved seeing the students’ earnest and engaged faces as I told them how they have the power to change the world. Their interest shone through especially during the Q&A, where they asked me some of the most intriguing and introspective questions I had ever received, including what inspired me to keep giving back and if my school supports my work.”

Will you be doing additional work with TNCS students?

“The TNCS students are going to be conducting a collection drive for gloves, mittens, scarves, and socks for families at a shelter that I have been working with this past year (this is the Family Crisis Center shelter where I built the library for the children). I am excited to see what other ideas the students come up with.”

What are your hobbies (or, what do you enjoy doing in your free time)?

“In my free time, I enjoy playing piano, classical Indian flute, practicing classical Indian dance, singing, reading, and writing.”

What do your parents think of your work?

“My parents are extremely supportive of my work. They help drive me when I go out to distribute the items to the men and women who need them. They have also instilled in me the importance of using this gift of life to help others.”


Ms. Neelakandan is pictured below right with a woman outside a homeless shelter last January. “I had just given her some handmade fleece blankets. It was below freezing outside,” she explained.
tncs-grant-writing-presentation

Ms. Neelakandan drove home two primary points for TNCS students: First, youth have the power to do good, and, second, write from the heart when seeking a grant—“If you really care about something, it will show through in your writing,” she said.

“She was inspiring and wonderful,” said Ms. Danyali. It certainly will be wonderful to see just how she inspires TNCS students and what great things they will make happen in the coming months!