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.”
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.”
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.
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.