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.
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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!

TNCS Middle School: Opening the Window of Awakening

As we approach the end of 2015, our thoughts naturally turn to what lies ahead in the coming year. For The New Century School, one thrilling near-future event looms very large: the opening of the TNCS middle school in fall 2016.

One of the more unfortunate American societal trends is that middle school–age kids are in a slump. Forgotten in the interstices between elementary school and high school, these kids are victims of what has been termed the “lost years.” Multiple factors contribute to this problem, but a key issue is that kids are still maturing yet are confronted with the many pressures and challenges of young adulthood. Many do not yet have the tools they need to face down these challenges and become confused and overwhelmed, which all too often leads to poor decision-making with potentially life-altering consequences, such as teen pregnancy or drug abuse. Another unfortunate consequence is that kids show less interest in learning, with correspondingly lower academic performance.

The good news is, these problems are preventable, and TNCS is leading the charge to revolutionize middle school education. Rather than view the middle school years as inevitably unproductive, TNCS sees them as a Window of Awakening—flipping the entrenched notion that kids at this age are a lost cause on its head. Middle school becomes an opportunity, not a wasteland. A juncture, not a dead zone.

So how will TNCS make middle school a positive experience for students? Of course, the scholastic piece will maintain continuity with TNCS’s core identity as a progressive, inquiry-based learning institution that emphasizes global citizenship and community spirit. TNCS administration is in talks with a middle school curriculum expert to ensure that the curriculum will be rigorous and engaging, meets or exceeds state standards, and is relevant and therefore meaningful for students ages 10–14 years. Mixed-age classrooms, individualized instruction, and language acquisition will remain vital components in effecting this specialized middle school curriculum.

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The real difference will be in embracing the oft-squandered opportunity that these years present to keep them invested in their learning. It’s an opportunity to really set them up for success in high school and beyond with the explicit practical skills they will need. These include physical and mental organizational skills (e.g., keeping track of materials; time management) and developing the habits of successful students (to study smarter, not harder). And, more than that, it’s an opportunity to guide them in their search for their identity to who they really are—to help them actualize their innate potential and goodness.

Akin to the preschool years in some ways, during the middle school years, kids need parents more, not less. Despite their kids’ outward physical growth and the biological changes that seem to propel them to adulthood, parents retain more influence over kids at this age than they might realize. Although kids test out rebellion and throw up opposition every chance they get, these might be requests for attention and help. They are navigating a huge new world, and sometimes they want their hands held along the way.

TNCS is a small, close-knit school. Many among the student body have known each other since toddlerhood. While many preteens and teens are crumbling under peer pressure, pressure to conform, and the pressure to make good choices about huge decisions with their as-yet limited knowledge and experience, TNCS middle school students will benefit from being a part of this protective community where they will be free take things at their own pace.

At the same time, an integral school value is the courage to take risks—not to be confused with condoning risky behavior. This risk-taking is about creativity. Problem-solving, conflict resolution, trying new things, innovating . . . all of these are hallmarks of happy, successful, self-possessed individuals. TNCS middle school will create frameworks for possibility, in the words of The Art of Possibility, a groundbreaking book comprising 12 practices for bringing creativity into any endeavor.

True to TNCS’s mission, fostering compassion and its logical consequence, altruism, the middle school will broaden and deepen the mentorships begun in the younger divisions such as elementary students reading to the pre-primary and primary students. Here, these mentorships might take the form of actual instruction, which will benefit both groups, the younger  kids by the content of the instruction and the older kids by the act of instructing. The “Learning Pyramid” posits that we retain 90% of what we learn when we teach it to someone else. Leadership skills will be further cultivated through proposed formation of a student government.

They will reach out to the larger community as well with targeted “service learning.” In the words of the National Service Learning Clearinghouse, service learning is “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.” The possibilities for specific programs are endless, but partnering with Habitat for Humanity is one example of ways TNCS middle school students might participate. Maryland, by the way, was the first state to require service-learning hours as a condition of graduation from high school. (Click here to read some of the many academic, personal, and social student benefits of community engagement.)

Field trips will also take on a service-oriented hue. The upper elementary students are already taking excursions with teachers Kiley Stasch and Dan McGonigal that are connected to their in-class study. By applying what they have learned to the real world, they are then invited to reflect on their experience to reinforce the link between their service and their learning. Given their status as ever-maturing young people, these trips may take them farther afield than where they have so far gone, in keeping with TNCS’s global vision.

Why a middle school? TNCS Co-Founder/Executive Director said it best: “At the end of the day, what we want for our kids is for them to be happy with who they are and what they are doing.” And that’s what TNCS middle school will be all about.

Happy Holidays, TNCS Community! See you next year!