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Message from Michèle: Welcome to the 2015-2016 School Year

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Dear MCS Community, 

The big oak doors on 96th Street will open Wednesday, and George will be there to offer a high five to all the children on their way inside. Manhattan Country School’s 49th school year will begin in a familiar place—on the border of the ever-evolving neighborhoods of Yorkville and East Harlem—where change has long been embraced.

A focus on change will be seemingly everywhere in 2015-2016. The 4-5s will soon embark on their baby study, learning how they and others have already grown and changed. This year’s Upper School theme is “Neighborhood and Change,” which is inspiring faculty to consider new electives on architecture, speakers on gentrification and engaging students in designing sustainability features for our new building.

From the familiar vantage point on 96th Street, we will also be preparing for a change in our physical space. Construction has begun on our new building at 150 West 85th Street. (Details about this project will be shared in future communications.) Throughout the year, we will celebrate the place we have called home for nearly five decades. Our special picture-filled school calendar is just one example. We will also be preparing for our move to our new home next summer. Students, faculty, parents and alumni will contribute ideas about how to continue the sense of a close-knit community in our current home to our new space. Our now legendary Farm Festival will undoubtedly draw record numbers of alumni, alumni parents, former faculty and friends to our 96th Street block…and we’ve invited our new Upper West Side neighbors to come join in the fun. 

In the year leading up to our 50th anniversary, we will also take the opportunity to honor our founders and the stories they have to tell. These stories of MCS, the original 66 students and their families, and the context that inspired them contain lessons we can still appreciate and will likely learn all over again as we prepare for the next 50 years. 

Our History Reflected in 2015-2016 Initiatives

Progressive Education

Progressive education will receive heightened attention this year. Faculty explored Loving Learning: How Progressive Education Can Save America’s Schools as one of their summer reading books. Author Tom Little, one of the original Progressive Education Network (PEN) board members, completed the book about his nationwide tour of 57 progressive public and independent schools with Katherine Ellison shortly before his death in March 2014. His observations sparked a spirited discussion about what progressive education is and how it shapes how children learn during our opening staff meeting. We encourage you to read the book. Several copies are available for parents to borrow from the MCS library.

PEN 2015: Access, Equity, and Activism: Teaching the Possible will take place October 8-10. Maiya Jackson, MCS Upper School director, has served as chair of a coalition of two dozen public and independent schools on the organizing committee for this conference. Flannery Denny, Anna Sobel, Jay Fung and several other MCS faculty members have had major influence on what promises to be an inspiring gathering of 1,000 educators, parents and policy makers. MCS faculty will present eight workshops and we will host educator visits to the MCS Farm and 96th Street October 7 and 8. Our staff workshop day is scheduled on October 9 so our entire faculty and staff can attend. We have also promised to be one of the schools providing parent volunteers to help with registration.

As education laws face congressional renewal, parents opt out of mandated testing for their children, more advocacy groups speak out against the school-to-prison pipeline and research studies validate learning through experience, PEN and MCS have organized not only a conference but a springboard for ongoing dialogue and activism. PA Co-Presidents Stephanie Collazo and Kahli Mootoo have endorsed the idea of hosting the November PA meeting as a discussion about progressive education. There should be a lot to talk about.

Farm-Based Education and Education for Stewardship, Sustainability and Environmental Justice 

The “Country” in Manhattan Country School will get some time in the spotlight this year, as will our larger focus on human communities and the environment. Another of the summer reading books MCS faculty explored during the break was A People’s Curriculum for the Earth by Bill Bigelow and Tim Swinehart. This edited volume by two of Rethinking Schools’ prominent writers makes the case for climate change as the focus of curriculum on sustainability, stewardship and environmental justice. Several chapters fostered another engaging dialogue during our opening staff meeting. To encourage you to read the book, several copies are available for parents in the MCS library.

MCS Farm trips don’t start until late September this year. As cooler evenings and harvesting of the gardens signal the changing seasons, the Farm will be one of eight farm-based education sites receiving the attention of the Farm-Based Educators Network. Two dozen educators will tour eight distinctive education/production centers within 150 miles of New York City: Glynwood, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, Muscoot Farm, Hilltop Hanover Farm, Green Chimneys Farm & Wildlife Center, Common Ground Farm, Manhattan Country School Farm and Hawthorne Valley Farm. 

The broad focus of the tour is to highlight programs helping communities connect with the land, food and each other. MCS Farm faculty will model and share ideas on developing a strong mission, our program, financial model, safety, farming practices, staffing structures and community events. This sustained four-day exchange is both an opportunity to organize thoughts on how the Farm has come to do what we do now, as well as be inspired by the evolution of other innovative programs. 

Luckily, by the time the PEN conference comes around in October, student trips will be in full swing and educators choosing MCS Farm as their school site visit will meet seventh- and eighth-graders, too. 

Looking Forward

As we celebrate our 49th year, I expect 2015-2016 will be full of the same vitality and energy that has characterized previous years. Much that we have learned is strongly rooted in our mission, which we will appreciate one more year in our historic home on 96th Street. We will also do a lot of thinking about how to translate the important pieces of our mission and our experience to a new home in our 50th year and long into the future. A new chapter will be written in our program and in our community as we continue to embrace change and evolution.