TNCS’s Second Annual Town Hall

town-hall

TNCS will host a Town Hall annually to provide a forum for communication of ideas and news to the TNCS community.

On Tuesday, March 10th, The New Century School held its 2015 Town Hall meeting for an auditorium full of eager participants. Admissions Director and Town Hall Moderator Robin Munro said, “We are a young and very ambitious school, so yearly meetings like this are critical. We will provide an annual state of the school update, specifically the K–8th program, and a forum for families to ask questions.” Childcare with dinner and wine and hors’ d’oeuvres were offered, and questions were solicited ahead of time to allow the event speakers to shape the discussion accordingly.

There was an evident unifying thread to this event: collaboration. Mrs. Munro remarked by way of introduction that “the map hasn’t been written to exactly where the school’s destination is and what the steps are along the way.” The implication is clearly that TNCS community input is not only valued and taken seriously but is also helping navigate to the destination. We are writing this map together.

tncs-town-hall-audience

TNCS parents chat amongst themselves while having a little nosh prior to the start of the event.

Some notable differences from last year’s Town Hall bear pointing out. The biggest is the growth and maturation that the past year has afforded TNCS. Now in its 5th year, TNCS has emerged from the growing-pains phase faced by any new school as a secure, comfortable-in-its-own skin swan. It is owning its unique identity, and that feels good. Another key difference was in the nature of the interaction between the audience of parents and the event speakers (school administrators and executive directors). Parents were encouraged to share any concerns, but criticism was given in an overwhelmingly constructive way. Parents explained their problems but helpfully offered potential solutions to these problems in the same breath. The result was a very positive and productive evening. It felt like we were all in this together, collaborating to help keep the school flourishing and moving forward. Oh, right—that is the essence of the TNCS community!

happy-hour-light-fare-provided

Hors d’oeuvres gave attendees time to arrive at a leisurely pace, mingle, and recharge before getting down to business.

Speaker Presentations

In Public Health, the concept of “patient activation” measures an individual’s capacity to manage his or her own health and health care. Does she eat right and get plenty of sleep to maintain health? If he falls ill, does he have the skills to communicate effectively with a physician and to follow doctor’s orders? A correlation can be drawn in the education domain: “parent activation.” The Town Hall audience of parents was highly activated. They participate competently in the education their children are receiving at TNCS, they are knowledgeable about every aspect of their child’s school day, they purposefully sought out the school that best aligned with their own values. Their kids are so much the better off for it. This is not a way to say that TNCS students are simply academically superior. Although that is often the case, academic performance is not the key measure of “success” at TNCS; it’s so much more.

Co-Founder and Executive Director Roberta Faux calls the TNCS community “like-minded,” and she expressed our shared vision beautifully in a couple of personal vignettes. She retold the story of the school’s origins (much of the audience had not heard it last year) and how quickly the 1-room Patterson Park Montessori grew into TNCS today. Then she described a lovely interaction she recently had with one of her daughters, in which her daughter asked her what gifts would she (mom) prefer had been bestowed on her daughter as a baby by a fairy godmother, a là Princess Aurora in the story of Sleeping Beauty. First of all, what an insightful and touching question from such a young child. Both this question and the answer Mrs. Faux ultimately gave exemplify what TNCS is, how it works, and why it is such a phenomenal school. “I took a step back,” she said, “and I asked myself, “as parents and educators, what do we want for our kids?” In the meantime, of course, she had answered her daughter by telling her that she likes the gifts that her daughter already exhibits, such as her kind spirit and enumerating her many other attributes.

“It’s not just about achievement,” she continued. “It’s about being able to find our own happiness, overcome stress, engage in healthy give-and-take human relationships. These are the real-life training skills that we hope our children grow up learning and take with them.” She explained that in the United States, “giftedness” and high IQ are perhaps overvalued. “All children are capable of great things,” she said. But what’s wrong with working hard to achieve goals rather than being able to effortlessly master something? “Grit” is what will allow a person to attain mastery of something otherwise outside of his or her given wheelhouse. At TNCS, students are encouraged to try new things, to explore and to inquire their way into making self-guided discoveries. This takes perseverance, and this stick-to-itiveness will be a resource they can draw on in any circumstance for life. (Please see below for links to the TED talk she mentioned as well as Immersed‘s own handling of this topic.) “Education should not be just about achievement,” concluded Mrs. Faux. “It’s about cultivating the strength to work hard enough to find what you love. For my kids and for the kids here, if they can find that, then we’ve given them so much.”

Co-Founder and Executive Director Jennifer Lawner spoke next to express appreciation of and gratitude for TNCS staff and families, second the ideas expressed by Mrs. Faux, and to share a charming anecdote of her own: “Thinking back to 2007, I remembered how Roberta and I would sit on the sofa in her sunroom and discuss the crazy idea of opening a preschool. Finally, I knew I had to make a decision, so I said, ‘I’ll only do it if we can do language immersion,” and without any hesitation whatsoever she said, ‘well, okay’.”

Based on the topics submitted by attendees, Ms. Munro organized the overall discussion into nine umbrella categories: Space, Curriculum, Staffing, Standardized Testing, Accreditations, Parent–Administration Organization, Scholarship Fund, Short-Term and Long-Term Plans, and Open Q&A. Although not every topic got exhaustive coverage and not necessarily in this order, the following synopsis provides a comprehensive overview of the school and its future direction.

Space: Indoor and Outdoor

The Middle School opens in fall of 2016 and will most likely be housed in the existing Union Box space of Building North. The Co-Founders are in talks with architects and engineers to develop it as a multi-classroom space, which, if all goes planned, will be secured by August. Fall 2015 will see a mixed-age grade 4/5 classroom, mixed-age grade 2/3 classroom, and either two mixed-age K/1st classrooms or a straight K class plus one mixed-age K/1st class.

Last year’s playground redesign experienced some environmental setbacks but is still going to happen in order to create a space that can work for preschool, elementary, and future middle school students. A new geo dome will be erected, and the greenhouse will be moved. Other aspects are less certain, but ideas for improvement flew about the room. Also, Head of School Alicia Danyali just announced that Friday that TNCS mom Tracey Browning has organized another High Five fundraiser at Camden Yards. Funds will go to the playground overhaul.

Staffing and Curriculum

Mrs. Danyali fielded these topics and was visibly thrilled to announce that she will be joined by an Assistant Head of School in August. This will free up much of her time to focus on exploring new approaches to inspire kids to learn and be excited about that learning. The International Baccalaureate is one such program on the horizon. “The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect,” through challenging and rigorous education programs.

Regarding the curriculum, questions here were very specific. Being fans already of the school day scholastic content, parents wanted to know if there will be additional after-school enrichment, sports, and musical instrument instruction. The administration heard them loud and clear—this was perhaps the primary issue of the evening. Proposed solutions will probably involve community partnerships, and this is a good thing on many levels. TNCS is committed to being a responsible and active member of the external community; partaking of community offerings is one way to honor this commitment. Discussions were already underway to expand the relationship with Coppermine Fieldhouse at DuBurns Arena, so giving more opportunities for team sports instruction and participation is a likely outgrowth. The Patterson Park pool could be used for swimming lessons, and the ice skating rink could also be used in an athletic program. Musical instrument instruction will have to be given some more thought, but some creative workarounds thrown out included inquiring about the services of Laura Norris, Director of the Baltimore Chapter of Mando for Kids, a free program that teaches Baltimore City kids ages 6 and up to play the mandolin. Mrs. Norris just happens to live down the block from TNCS and is a frequent guest performer. This video clip features all age groups she currently teaches. Developing a special offshoot for TNCS students is a distinct possibility.

Standardized Testing

“Will TNCS be implementing standardized testing?” was another popular question. “To be in line with the other private schools, it makes sense,” said Ms. Danyali. “We are leaning toward the ERB, but it’s not set in stone yet. We want something that would match this independent, dual-language learning environment.” According to the ERB–Lighting the Pathways to Learning website (ERB stands for Education Resources Bureau), “ERB is the only not-for-profit member educational services organization offering assessments for both admission and achievement for independent and public schools PreK–grade 12. . . With the diverse needs and requirements in today’s academic landscape, ERB takes a customized approach to our services.” Ms. Danyali says she is grateful that TNCS isn’t forced to implement standardized testing, “but students also need to know how to take a test—it’s important to have that exposure.”

Such testing, albeit less pressurized than it would be in a public school setting, will also prepare students for matriculation into secondary school and beyond. Regardless, teachers are never asked to simply “teach to the test.” They have freedom to accomplish their goals how they deem suitable, based on and tailored specifically to the individuals they teach.

Parent–Administration Organization 

Parents were very vocal about their willingness to help tackle existing obstacles to progress. A  suggestion was made was to formalize a PTA-esque parent committee, and another to create an oversight committee to help tie individual committee threads together to more effectively communicate school changes and news. “We are open,” said Mrs. Munro. “If what you want is a formal quarterly meeting, we’ll make that happen.” Thus, again the collaborative nature of this group was felt.

Short- and Long-Term Plans and Q&A

Though we didn’t get the chance to address this one head on, a theme throughout the discussion emerged that could serve to answer questions about how well students will be prepared for the next steps (whatever those might be) in their academic careers and lives. With the attention to whole-child development, the carefully differentiated instruction, the administration policies that ensure that TNCS doesn’t exist in a vacuum but is part of the city and state educational corps, etc. all combine to guarantee not just preparedness but that the TNCS-educated student will thrive in his or her future environs.

The Q&A gave TNCS administrators a clear idea of what parents feel could be done better. These issues were addressed with seriousness and respect and are of immense value to the moving the school forward. Many parents took this opportunity to praise the school and administrators for the zillion things they get right on a daily basis.

Finally . . .

For more information on Professor Angela Duckworth and grit, please visit the following links:

See you next year, TNCS community! In the meantime, keep that valuable and much-appreciated feedback coming!

TNCS’s Inaugural Town Hall

On Thursday, January 9th, The New Century School held its first-ever Town Hall meeting for an auditorium full of eager participants. The Town Hall was conceived, says Admissions Director and Town Hall Moderator Robin Munro, because “We are a new school, so meetings like this are critical. We will have a meeting like this once a year for families to get a state of the school update and have a forum to ask questions.” The meeting followed directly on the heels of an Elementary Information Night, and the two presentations together made for an informative and synergistic event. What made it especially effective is the obvious level of planning and organization that went into it as well as the efforts made to accommodate families to quite an extensive degree. Free childcare with dinner, free parking, and wine and hors’ d’oeuvres were some of the inducements to attend, but the real attraction was in being able to submit questions well ahead of time to allow the event speakers to shape the discussion accordingly. This evening was clearly for us.

Thus, as Ms. Munro said, TNCS’s status as a new school means that it is still maturing, becoming itself. To alleviate the uncertainty inherent in that development process, the Town Hall gave the audience some transparency into the inner workings of our beloved school. Based on the topics submitted by attendees, Ms. Munro organized the overall discussion into seven umbrella categories: Growth, TNCS Leadership, Tuition and Fundraising, Standardized Testing, TNCS Community: Internal and External, Life after TNCS, and TNCS Policies. These topics combine to provide a comprehensive overview of the school and its future direction. Following is a synopsis.

Growth

The growth category was subdivided into Projections, Instruction Space, and Curriculum. Projections: What are the school’s growth plans for the future? Individual questions under this topic centered on whether expansion into a Middle School is likely and were mostly submitted by parents whose children are currently in the elementary program (or are about to be) and hoping to stay awhile! One family is even considering moving to within walking distance of the school. Are enrollment numbers supporting this plan? A resounding yes! is the unequivocal answer. For enrollment, near-future projections are 150–200 students school wide (i.e., including preschool, elementary, and middle school). The plan is to stay bottom heavy—keep the preschool large because it feeds the upper levels but there is a natural attrition rate as families move or change schools as their particular situations warrant. Here is the breakdown:

  • Pre-primary (~24 students): Maintain Spanish and Mandarin Chinese immersion.
  • Primary, including K (70–90 students): Maintain Montessori model with mixed-age, small class sizes in a 3-year cycle.
  • Elementary + Middle School (60~80 students): Expand to four or five mixed-age/mixed-grade classes, including 1st and 2nd (and “pre-1st” as needed), 3rd and 4th, 5th and 6th, and 7th and 8th.

Regarding elementary, the target size is no more than 16 students per class to allow for TNCS’s signature individualized, differentiated instruction. TNCS is currently approved to teach through Grade 5 and will continue annually adding a grade through Grade 8. TNCS “officially” follows basic Maryland age guidelines in grade assignments (i.e., must be age 5 by September 1st to enter Kindergarten and so forth), but internally, students are treated as individuals, not as a level. Some fun elementary facts include:

  • In 5 years, TNCS will graduate its first 8th-grade student
  • The TNCS Middle School will “open” Fall 2016
  • TNCS’s first 8th-grade class will graduate Spring 2019 (whoa!)

Sound like a too-lofty goal? Not when you consider that, so far, TNCS has hit every major planned milestone, including opening an Elementary in Fall 2010, launching a Greenhouse in Spring 2011, implementing a School Lunch Program in Fall 2011, establishing a Gymnasium and Performance Space in Fall 2012, and bringing in Gerstung gym equipment and the Imagination Playground in Spring 2013. With this kind of momentum, not only is a Middle School a certainty, but a playground redesign for a Fall 2014 launch is also well within reach (see below)! Finally, while all of this goes on around us, internally, the administration will be renewing their  focus on school infrastructure, such as curricula, materials, teacher and student retention, etc.

Instruction Space: How will the school accommodate future classes? This question is immediately relevant. With a Kindergarten class about to join the ranks of elementary in a few months, another classroom as well as another teacher are on the horizon. Said Ms. Munro, “We have the physical space to grow. Next semester we are moving the library to shelves lining the halls, and the art room to the existing library to open up a third classroom.” Thus, all three elementary classrooms will be on the third floor. The library occupying the hall spaces is sheer genius—the constant exposure to books will likely trigger increased interest in reading them! Even bigger news is that TNCS now owns the 710 building as well as the 724 S. Ann St. location, providing an additional 1,500 square feet of space on two levels. Already home to The Lingo Leap and to the pre-primary classrooms, making use of other parts of this building is a logical next step. A Middle School Science Lab will eventually occupy part of this space.

Finally, to round out TNCS’s cozy but expanding campus, big plans are afoot for a playground redesign. “This is the year to plan and make changes to create a space that can work for our preschool, our elementary students, and our future middle school students,” said Ms. Munro and asked for parent volunteers to get creative and make some suggestions. Other sources TNCS will tap for design inspiration are MICA students, who might get class credits or other incentives for their assistance. We don’t want “big plastic structures,” said Ms. Munro, “and you’ll be relieved to hear that we want to get rid of the rocks!” (This last is a nod to the parents of some of the younger students whose pockets are always full of washing machine–destroying pebbles.)

Curriculum: What is the curriculum for Upper Elementary and Middle School? Questions here were very specific. Parents want to know what the curriculum will “look like” as the students mature away from the lower Montessori levels. Will there be a Chinese and Spanish language program,  additional after-school enrichment, physical fitness testing, musical instrument instruction? How will TNCS deal with Common Core standards, if at all? How does TNCS compare with local public and private schools in terms of academic achievement?

Being independent and committed to small-classroom size, TNCS can and will “do it all.” Art, music, foreign languages, and physical education will continue to be spotlighted—yet not at the expense of rigorous instruction in science, math, and language arts (reading, writing spelling, etc.). Head of School Alicia Danyali addressed these curriculum questions; please read TNCS Elementary Information Night: A School Grows and Flourishes for details. Regarding Common Core, which is often vilified in the media, TNCS is fortunate to be able to cherry-pick the best of that approach and implement selectively. It’s not all bad, she says, and “[We] use it when it speaks to what’s going on in the classroom.” The guiding principle of Common Core is to promote independent learning, problem-solving ability, and critical thinking, all ideals very much in line with TNCS’s philosophy. It’s important to note that rather than dictating the sequence of the day, Common Core at TNCS supplements what’s already happening.

True to TNCS form, however, simply continuing is categorically insufficient as a future plan. TNCS was built on innovation in education, and the Co-Executive Directors Roberta Faux and Jennifer Lawner continuously explore new approaches to inspire kids to learn and be excited about that learning. The International Baccalaureate is one such program on the horizon. “The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect,” through challenging and rigorous education programs. Elementary teachers Ms. DuPrau and Ms. Roberts also chimed in to assure parents that they “don’t just show up and teach whatever they feel like that particular day.” Expectations are high, yet teachers are never asked to simply “teach to the test.” They have freedom to accomplish their goals how they deem suitable, based on and tailored specifically to the individuals they teach.

TNCS Leadership

This topic was evidently on the minds of many TNCS families and seemed to center on whether a Board of Directors exists or will be appointed. Said Moderator Ms. Munro, “The simple answer to this questions is ‘No,’ and the deeper answer really starts to address how the school was founded, the state of the school today, and where the school is headed in the future. I think [the Co-Founders/Co-Executive Directors] can speak a bit more to how the school was founded and to some of the advantages of staying small and not having a Board of Directors at this stage of development.”

Excuse the oversimplification, but, basically, the school is still coming into its own and needs some room to establish firm footing before transforming into something else entirely. Let’s face it, we like the school, and “our kids have benefited tremendously from what [the Co-Founders] have built,” as one dad in the audience eloquently put it. From what we’ve seen so far, we can trust that it’s headed in the right direction.

Said Ms. Lawner, “Staying small allows us to really use peoples’ talents, to cultivate those talents the same way we cultivate your children’s talents and skills.” She elaborated on the school’s beginnings and how she and Ms. Faux investigated setting up as a non-profit or funding the school through grants but quickly found that grant money tends to go to charter schools, which are bound by restrictions that TNCS simply can’t support. “We were able to self-fund and grow this, and it’s working very well” she said. “In this stage of our development, we feel that staying small allows us to make the kind of bold decisions we feel we need to make.” She used Mandarin instruction as an example of something that likely would not get approval via a grant route.

A parental advisory board (a 501c, for example) is something very different from getting and even acting on parent feedback—which is welcome and encouraged, added Ms. Faux. “We are doing something different and not running everything through a committee—the way every other school has been run,” she said. She left the possibility open of becoming a 501c school in future, so long as that aligns with the school’s values at that time. Also, changing to non-profit status is not easily achieved. The Co-Founders roles, moreover, would be unclear. If someone is ready to endow the school, say in 20 years, then that might be the time to become a proper non-profit. In the present, however, as one parent put it, the advantages conferred by for-profit status far outweigh those of non-profit status.

Ms. Munro stepped up once more to review some of the ways that parents can make their voices heard in school-related issues. Again, feedback is always welcome and encouraged, and meetings such as the now-annual Town Hall, Open Houses, and Information Nights are ideal forums for asking questions and weighing in. Another  suggestion she made was to formalize a PTA-esque parent committee through the Parent Liaison. “We are open,” she said. “If what you want is a formal quarterly meeting, we’ll make that happen.” The message is clear: Structurally, things need to stay as they are for the near future, but within that framework, there’s plenty of maneuverability to accommodate families’ reasonable desires.

Tuition and Fundraising

This question came up from parents wanting to know how to help raise money for the school (thanks parents!). Here again, grants probably are not within TNCS’s reach. For now, the small annual tuition increase every year and the expanding student body may suffice.

Within the for-profit structure, a separate 501c will exist soon to fund scholarships and thus make TNCS accessible to a wider student pool.

Standardized Testing

“Will TNCS be implementing standardized testing?” was another popular question. “To be in line with the other private schools, it makes sense,” said Ms. Danyali. “We are leaning toward the ERB, but it’s not set in stone yet. We want something that would match this independent, dual-language learning environment.” According to the ERB–Lighting the Pathways to Learning website (ERB stands for Education Resources Bureau), “ERB is the only not-for-profit member educational services organization offering assessments for both admission and achievement for independent and public schools PreK–grade 12. . . With the diverse needs and requirements in today’s academic landscape, ERB takes a customized approach to our services.” Ms. Danyali says she is grateful that TNCS isn’t forced to implement standardized testing, “but students also need to know how to take a test—it’s important to have that exposure.”

Such testing, albeit less pressurized than it would be in a public school setting, will also prepare students for matriculation into secondary school and beyond.

TNCS Community: Internal and External

With the internal community covered in multiple ways throughout the discussion, Moderator Ms. Munro directed this portion to the broader community, focusing on partnerships with the city, community service, and even potential environmental hazards. In the latter category, chromium exposure from the piercing of the capped old Allied Chemical facility at Harbor Point during construction of the new Exelon building was specifically mentioned, and TNCS administration has been assured that Baltimore City has taken the appropriate steps to ensure the population’s safety. This is in contrast to how that situation was formerly managed, evidently. Councilman Jim Kraft has been with TNCS “every step of the way” to help, said Ms. Lawner.

As for community service, there’s usually something going on to help our city at TNCS. Please read TNCS Gives Thanks By Giving Back, Heifer International,  and TNCS Holiday Outreach Programs for details.

Life after TNCS

Though we didn’t get the chance to address this one head on, a theme throughout the discussion emerged that could serve to answer questions about how well students will be prepared for the next steps (whatever those might be) in their academic careers and lives. With the attention to whole-child development, the carefully differentiated instruction, the administration policies that ensure that TNCS doesn’t exist in a vacuum but is part of the city and state educational corps, etc. all combine to guarantee not just preparedness but that the TNCS-educated student will thrive in his or her future environs.

TNCS Policies

Having run out of time, the Town Hall had to end before all questions were addressed. Important issues such as how and when to introduce sex education will have to wait until the next opportunity. In the meantime, keep these topical questions coming, parents!