TNCS Head of School Erika Johnson Shares Her Thoughts on the New School Year!

Although September has a way of overwhelming us all, the 2023–2024 school year got off to a remarkably smooth start at The New Century School. This is due in no small part to Head of School Erika Johnson, who worked through the summer to ensure that TNCS was ready for another fantastic year of teaching, learning, and experiencing.

It’s All About the Three Cs

In her second year as Head of School, Ms. Johnson says she comes to this year with “fresh eyes”:

Last year it was all new, and this year I’m finding that there’s still more to unearth. There’s no way to know a place and all the people and parts in a year; last year was learning all of the parts, and now we’re able to see relationships and how the system works together. So I think we’re going into year 2 with a better understanding, and we’ll continue to unpack it as well as bring new things.

Even with new things on the horizon (a school is a dynamic place, and change is inevitable—and good!), Ms. Johnson strives for continuity among the flux.

Growth can only come with some consistency, and so I’m excited about the leadership team and the amazing, brilliant individuals I get to work with every day. I think that that will mean a lot for our student body and their ability to feel connected because  they are constantly growing and changing, and it’s our responsibility to create some stability for them. Having a consistent leadership team will allow the students to grow and develop even more. We also have much of the same faculty and staff returning, which also means consistency. In the K1 classroom, for example, if you came in as a kindergartener last year, as a first-grader this year, you’re going to have the same teachers. So those students will not have to make a big transition, and I’m very  grateful for the faculty and staff for returning and maintaining the commitment to the student body.

If a theme is emerging here, it’s no accident. One of Ms. Johnson’s superpowers (yes, she has more than one) is the ability to weave together loose threads into a cohesive whole. Her mission during the last school year at TNCS was to strengthen and sustain the TNCS community. This year, that resolve has not wavered, and she knows that the right people are in place to continue this work, both from the inside as well as off campus with the Family Partnership committee. Her mantra? “Building community, building capacity, building curriculum.”

Building Community

Carrying over from some of the work put in last year, Ms. Johnson says, “building community really is about building a community of learners in each classroom and a community of learners for each division. The New Century School is made up of a preschool division and a K through 8 division; the hope is that we we are building learning communities in both of those divisions who are able to work together to uphold the portrait of a graduate that we introduced last year and really become citizens in in each of those communities.”

“In the spirit of building community,” she explains, “we are introducing what I’m calling ‘Wellness Work’.” This wellness work is almost anything outside of the core academic classes that is designed to nurture the “Whole Child,” such as advisory for social/emotional enrichment, racial literacy classes, and health and human sexuality. “We’re offering these opportunities more consistently this year and connecting them under one umbrella. TNCS is committed to the development of personhood.” What are communities composed of, after all?

As for how the school year is going so far, Ms. Johnson feels positive about it. The litmus test for her is whether students are happy. “When the kids first arrived, there were lots of hugs and smiles and hanging out. That good camaraderie leads to good communities. I also think our teachers are off to a strong start, and I’m cranking out as much as I can each day to provide support to them.”

Building Capacity

Some of the more wonderful aspects of TNCS are not easily achieved, although they may appear to happen as if by magic to onlookers. The differentiated education is one (of many); multiage classrooms are another. Ms. Johnson has the ability to take concepts and practically apply them. In so doing, she is giving faculty and staff the tools they need to make the “magic” happen. “I’m focused on really building the capacity of our faculty and staff so that they are able to allow each child to approach the content in an individual way, without feeling like they have to create a lesson plan for each child. There’s a real craft to teaching, and I want to honor that,” she said.

Building capacity cuts both ways—both teachers and students need the capacity to optimally fulfill their respective roles. As such, one tenet of the TNCS student that Ms. Johnson will be drilling down on this year is executive functioning skills. For 8th-graders, the ultimate goal of honing these skills is high-school preparedness. “We’re deeply committed to making sure that each of our 8th-graders is enrolled in the high school of their choice next fall, and that means meeting with them, hearing them, and helping them understand the application process,” she explained.

The rest of the student body will not be left behind in this regard, of course.

Teachers are explicitly teaching attention, organization, and self monitoring. They have a rubric to track students over the course of the week and give them a grade based on whether the particular skill is emerging, developing, or mastered. Many people don’t think about metacognition—they don’t think about their thinking. It’s not until somebody points it out that you’re able to acknowledge, ‘yes I have a pattern, and in order for me to break that pattern I have to monitor my thinking and my emotions’. We are asking children to self-monitor all day long, so we have to help them develop the awareness of how their brains are functioning. When they understand their own patterns, they better appreciate the need to shift their thinking or adopt a strategy to be more productive, concentrate a little longer, or even remember to bring a pencil to class. There are things that are out of our control, but then there are things that are within our control. By helping students to understand that early, we’ll create very dynamic and powerful lifelong learners.

Students, meanwhile, are using weekly planners that teachers help them fill out at the start of the week and offer reminders about at the end of class. Teachers are asking families to initial the planner at the end of the day to say that they have seen what their student completed. “Hopefully this will create a bridge of communication between what’s happening in the classroom and what’s happening at home,” said Ms. Johnson.

All of this meshes superbly with the Montessori foundation of independent learning that underpins TNCS.

Building Curriculum

Curriculum is also getting a sprucing up. “We have a real focus on curriculum this year and solidifying lesson plans as well as what content area we’re covering and the approach to covering it. We’re also going to continue with the racial literacy taught in the Pollyanna Curriculum and really understanding each other a little better,” said Ms. Johnson.

In fact, one more new thing that Ms. Johnson has embarked on this year is pursuit of an Education Doctorate (EdD) through American University. With all three of her children in college, she converted one room to a home office for her studies. “I’m really excited about how I’m going to be able to take what I am actively learning in the classroom and apply it to the challenges and the triumphs of TNCS,” she said. “To bring that knowledge back in a tangible way to, again, build community, build capacity, build curriculum.”

“We’re All Teachers, All Learners”

If you’re wondering how she makes time for all of the important work she does (remember those superpowers alluded to earlier?), to her, it’s more about a mindset. “You can’t ask students to do things that you’re not willing to do,” she explained. “Modeling is the strongest educator because people have to be able to see it. We model it, then I think it inspires, encourages, and nurtures our students. For example, I’ve challenged all of the administrators to sit in on the Spanish classes, so we’re all also learning the language alongside students. It’s the nerd in me.” A beautiful corollary here is that this modeling is teaching students to model, which is important in a school where mixed-age classrooms and inquiry-led education provide opportunities for students to be both explorers and teachers.

“We all must be teachers,” said Ms. Johnson.

Second-Annual TNCS Black History Month Celebration Lifts Parent and Student Voices!

More than anything else, the 2020–2021 school year at The New Century School has been a testament to what can happen when a community thrives. In the midst of the many and ongoing upheavals we’ve collectively experienced, the members of the TNCS community at all levels continue to not only surmount would-be obstacles, but turn them into new opportunities to connect and grow. This echoes a sentiment expressed by TNCS Co-Founders and Co-Executive Directors Roberta Faux and Jennifer Lawner a year ago, when they entreated the community to support each other through the crisis we faced, emerge stronger from it, and look back proudly on our conduct. Their steadfast vision of what TNCS can be and do has also grown stronger.

Celebrating Community

That’s why, having debuted a Black History Month Celebration just last year in characteristically stellar fashion, TNCS was not about to forfeit the promise to make this essential sociocultural event an annual occurrence, despite the practical challenges of not being able to gather in person. TNCS finds a way to forge ahead. While last year’s event was a celebration of music and culture and largely composed of student performances, this year’s event took a different tack to grapple with some of the United States’ societal ills—some of the very issues that underpin why Black History Month evolved. (Note that last year’s event certainly also brought its share of gravitas, especially when renowned artist Harold Caudio took the stage.)

To back up a bit, earlier this year, TNCS Head of School Señora Shara Khon Duncan and staff announced their plans to implement the Pollyanna Curriculum throughout school as one way to give TNCS students a way to talk about what they were seeing and hearing about racial and social injustice—the spring and summer of 2020 were socially turbulent not just because of the pandemic. According to their website, “Pollyanna is a national nonprofit helping academic and other institutions achieve their diversity, equity, and inclusion goals.”

Racial Literacy

That brings us to the Black History Month event on Wednesday, February 24th, which featured a talk and Q&A by illustrious Guest Speaker Jessy Molina, currently of Molina Consulting (and a consultant for Pollyanna, among many other institutions and organizations). Ms. Molina founded Molina Consulting in July of 2020 in her Baltimore home after having served as the director of diversity, equity, and social justice at two local independent schools as well as working in nonprofits for the prior 15 years. She describes her path to Molina Consulting this way:

I am an attorney, a mediator, and a facilitator. I decided to move into full-time consulting work because I wanted to support more organizations and institutions to make long-term, sustainable change around equity and justice. I also had an interest in doing more conflict mediation and healing work with people and communities.

This is the best professional decision I have ever made. I am thrilled that I get to support people in healing from racial trauma every day, and in doing so, continue my own healing journey. Our bodies are carrying the weight of racial stress, anxiety, and trauma, and I’m grateful to support people to find more freedom and joy. We have to learn how to talk about race and racism in this country, and to make systemic changes with big impact. I am grateful to be part of that.

Schools are ideal places to start these conversations and to develop “racial literacy.” “Racial literacy,” explains Ms. Molina, “is the ability to understand race and racism in the context of our history, understand race as a social and political construct, understand how racism is institutionalized and perpetuated through systems, and know how how to shift practices, policies and protocols to make systemic change that leads to more equity and justice for more people.” Her presentation, “Talking to Children about Race and Racism,” was designed to help us parents understand our own orientation toward these subjects to better, more productively engage with our children. This starts from the ground up. “Parents are a critical part of helping our children develop healthy racial identities and learn how to stand up for—and build—more racial justice in the world,” she explained. “We can model being open and honest, acknowledging and repairing mistakes, leveraging our privilege for equity, and sharing resources and power. Research suggests that children learn more about racial justice from what we do, not what we say. Our children are watching everything we do—the best way to teach them is to be our best selves.”

After opening remarks by Sra. Duncan, Ms. Molina took the (virtual) stage.

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The event was exceptionally well attended (thank you, zoom!), and Ms. Molina’s presentation generated some very robust audience engagement. It was clear that parents were ready to talk about this. They were also overflowing with gratitude for Ms. Molina’s eye-opening talk and for Sra. Duncan’s efforts to make the event happen.

Ms. Molina is obviously committed to her work, and the world will be a better place for it (Molina Consulting’s fitting tagline is “Training to Change the World). “The most important part for me was connecting to my purpose,” she says. “Who am I and what I am here to do? Serving as a mediator, facilitator, and trainer helps me get closer to my purpose of building connection and community among people and supporting people to live full, free, and whole lives.” In addition, she gets more family time, which many of us are also experiencing. “I’m thankful that I get to work at home with my children. It’s a joy to help them with their homework, sneak in a favorite episode, or make cookies after lunch. It’s certainly difficult to balance on some days, but overall, I am loving the extra time we have together.”

What TNCS Students Had to Say

And let’s not forget, all that extra “together time” translates to time spent modeling an open, honest, and compassionate way to be in this world. Something is paying off, if these student presentations that followed Ms. Molina’s talk are any indication. At the behest of ELA teacher Jalynn Harris, students could read a Black History Month–themed poem (some in tanka form) they recently wrote for class or present research on a world-changing Black figure (or both in the case of one enterprising 8th grader!).

The evening ended in just about the most perfect way possible, with a beautiful rendition of Lift Every Voice and Sing by high school students in Tallahassee, Florida. The audience was moved beyond description and came away brimming with thoughts and feelings about the event that could very well lead to important changes.

Resources from “Talking to Children about Race and Racism”: