May 2016

Thank You For Making Big Night Out! 2016 a Success

Blog Type:  From the Directors Date Posted:  Monday, May 2, 2016 Byline:  By Michèle Solá, Director

It was a grand evening. Good food, good music, spirited dancing, all made better by a diverse community coming together with a purpose—to raise funds in support of sliding-scale tuition.

I always enjoy Big Night Out! That was seemingly true for the 280 people who took part in the celebration on Saturday, too. Their congratulatory emails and phone calls give a sense of why.

  • “Congratulations to all of you for an event that went off without a hitch… entertaining, meaningful and an inspiring gathering of a community of which we still feel a part.”
  • “We were very impressed by all of the accomplished alumni of MCS and how they use the values learned during their time there to make an impact in the world.” 
  • “My guest was really pleased to be there and is excited about the model that MCS presents. I’m so pleased about the connection we have made there.”  
  • “MCS was a really good school for my children when they were here in the 1980s, but I can tell tonight that today it’s even better.”
  • “My husband didn’t buy all I was selling him about how special MCS is. Well, he believes me now.”
  • “Very impressive and thought-provoking alumni and students!”
  • “Last night’s BNO was the best one yet.”

View the Living the Dream Mentor Award acceptance speeches by Christopher Purdy and Cecile Richards.

Living the Dream Mentor Award honoree Christopher Purdy (Class of 1980) was eloquent in describing how an MCS education influenced his life and work with DKT International. “Empowering women with family planning information, products and services is revolutionary. It changes lives and it changes societies. Wasn’t this the aim of MCS—to change the world one student at a time?”

It was gratifying to hear Chris’ assessment of MCS. “There are a lot of schools in New York where you can get a fine education, your ABCs and your 123s. You can learn a language and you can learn about science and certainly MCS is one of those great schools.” Chris went on to add, “There are two other things that make MCS very, very special. The first is compassion. The other is passion.… As I look around the world today, including here in the U.S., it strikes me that we could use a lot more compassion and passion. We’re going to need those values in our future leaders if we’re going to solve the kinds of problems they’re going to be faced with.” 

Compassion and passion are essential components of the work of Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, our second Living the Dream Mentor Award honoree. She understands the importance of learning about and fighting for social justice at an early age. Cecile was unable to attend Saturday’s event, but she accepted her award via video. In her remarks, she said, “MCS is the kind of school we need all over the country, creating the next generation of social justice activists.” 

Thank you to the event’s generous underwriters and donors, as well as the parents, alumni, faculty, staff and trustees who contributed auction items and experiences. Big Night Out!wouldn’t have been possible without the tireless efforts of our development office, the leadership of the Big Night Out! committee co-chairs and the dedicated work of many volunteers. Their resolve to display the vitality of our mission in every detail was very much on display. Thank you to everyone who helped make Big Night Out! a fundraising success.

If you weren’t able to join us Saturday, I invite you to read the event program book and view images from the event in the online photo gallery. I look forward to next year’s celebration, where we will honor two more individuals who are changing the world for the better and MCS’ 50th anniversary.

8-9s Leverage Sunlight for Power and Growth at the Farm

Blog Type:  Dispatches From the Farm Date Posted:  Friday, May 6, 2016 Byline:  By Garth Battista, MCS Farm

Last week at the Manhattan Country School Farm, the 8-9s helped change the angle of our solar panels from their winter orientation—set steep to catch the low winter sun—to their summer orientation, laying nearly flat. This activity was accompanied by discussion of the angle of the earth’s axis of rotation, and the nature of seasons.

The students also spent time in the garden transplanting seedlings that had been growing in the greenhouse for the last few months. They planted lettuce, onions and broccoli. In the next few weeks, students will plant broccoli seedlings started by the MCS fifth-graders in early April. Eventually, this broccoli will be eaten fresh by campers at Farm Camp in July, and frozen for use throughout all of next year.

At some point, and not necessarily in chronological order, all MCS students will have experience in starting plants from seed, watering the new growth in the greenhouse, planting out the seedlings and harvesting and eating the produce. (MCS Farm campers will get the bonus experience of weeding the garden!)

Transplanting lettuce seedlings.

 And onions…

The lower garden beds, which soon will be bursting with produce.

Introducing New Initiatives at the MCS Farm

Blog Type:  Dispatches From the Farm Date Posted:  Friday, May 6, 2016 Byline:  By Ed Fersch, Interim Farm Director

The Farm has recently begun two exciting initiatives. Both are part of the overall farm mission to do things in an environmentally responsible and sustainable manner, to grow as much of our food as is possible and to involve the students in the work of the Farm.

Raised Garden Beds

The first initiative involves the cultivation of the lower garden. At one time, we plowed our gardens every spring and planted our seeds and seedlings in rows in the tilled soil. We spent the summer hoeing the weeds and the fall harvesting our crops. There were problems with this way of doing things. Plowing was generally done in May, which meant that we could not begin working in the gardens until the end of the school year. As a result, few kids were able to help with the planting. Once the garden was plowed, the soil was exposed. This leads to erosion by wind and rain and the loss of soil nutrients. In the ’90s, we began experimenting with other gardening techniques that would prevent erosion and allow for greater student participation. We now use raised beds in the upper garden and in a portion of the lower garden. We have continued to plow the remainder of the lower garden.

Last year, we did not grow any crops in the plowed part of the lower garden. Instead, we planted a cover crop. This consisted of some fast-growing plants that would sprout before the weeds. These grew and were mowed during the summer, adding nutrients to the soil. In the fall, we used a cultivator to prepare in-ground beds. The tractor-pulled cultivator turned the soil over in rows. We left space for a path and then cultivated another row. Doing this, we now have 13 beds, each with permanent paths between. This system is in many ways more natural than plowing the ground every year. The soil is not exposed to the elements and the permanent paths provide an ecosystem that will be the home of worms and a variety of helpful insects. 

This new approach also allows space in the gardens for perennial plants. We have long bemoaned our inability to grow things like blueberries or asparagus or apples. Once the ground was prepared, we planted a number of blueberry bushes and apple trees and began a grape arbor. By being in the garden, they are protected from the deer and our sheep and goats.

This spring, we ran the cultivator through the unplanted beds. This week, the 9-10s planted asparagus roots in one of these beds. We will use the others to grow some of our regular vegetables like broccoli, corn or tomatoes and to try some new things that we did not have room for previously. We are excited by the opportunities for new crops and for greater involvement by the kids in gardening this system will provide.

Honey Bees

The second new initiative at the Farm this spring is the addition of one hive of honeybees. Honeybees are a vital part of our agricultural system. Pollination is necessary for the production of fruits, nuts, berries and vegetables. And honeybees are the primary pollinators of these plants. You may have heard of the decline in the number of honeybees across the country. A number of diseases, both known and unknown, have caused bee colonies to die. Scientists who have studied this have made a number of recommendations that they believe will reverse this trend. These include asking farmers and gardeners to avoiding certain pesticides and to plant specific flowers. They are also encouraging more people to set up bee hives. The result is that people in urban, suburban and rural areas are all joining in establishing bee colonies. This is an important initiative. Having small hives across the landscape minimizes the possibility of the collapse of the entire beekeeping industry. The Catskill Mountains, in particular, have been identified as providing an ideal habitat for successful bee colonies.

Last fall, the Farm faculty shared with Michèle our interest in participating in this effort and raising honeybees at the Farm. Cathy, our farmwork teacher, attended a number of workshops to learn more about the process. We decided to move forward and purchased much of the equipment during the winter. The bees just arrived!

There are a number of students who come to the Farm who have an allergy to insect stings and, as a result, carry an Epi-Pen. The Farm faculty is trained to administer the new Epi-Pens, and carries them along during outdoor classes, on hikes and trips to the lake during Farm camp.

Before embarking on this project, we investigated and considered carefully concerns that might arise about stings and allergies. Stinging insects like yellow jackets and wasps are all around us in urban, suburban and rural areas. Our research found that having a beehive does not put children with allergies at additional risk. These insects only sting when they feel threatened in some way and honeybees are less likely to sting than native insects. We have carefully selected a location for the hive that is an out-of-the-way spot not frequented by the kids.  

In their first year at the Farm, our honeybees will need to establish their colony and learn where to find the sources of nectar in the different seasons. The plants we grow in our gardens and the wildflowers that grow in the fields will have reliable pollinators in the area. We will start educating students about bees and their importance to agriculture. For the older students this might entail an examination of the parts of a flower and discussion of pollination. This study will not involve interacting with the honeybees directly.

These two initiatives, along with the mushroom planting that John reported on in the fall, are part of our ongoing commitment to find ways to grow the food that sustains us in ways that sustain the environment in which we live.

On Their Final Farm Trip, Eighth-Graders Help Prepare Sheep for Summer

Blog Type:  Dispatches From the Farm Date Posted:  Friday, May 13, 2016 Byline:  By Garth Battista, MCS Farm

This week at the Manhattan Country School Farm, the eighth-graders witnessed a big annual event: the shearing of our sheep. The eighth-graders have learned about wool and worked with it each visit in their textiles class since they were in the 7-8s. Now on this trip—their very last as MCS students—they finally got to see this essential first stage of the whole process.

The sheep had grown out their fleeces since last spring, and all looked pretty much like enormous spheres of wool on four legs. Shearing them serves two purposes: it gives the sheep some relief from the oncoming heat of summer, and it provides MCS with a supply of wool for our textiles program. Over the next year, MCS students will learn to spin it into yarn, dye it and weave beautiful pieces of cloth.

Nancy Meyers is a professional shearer who travels to farms all over central New York. She is a wonderful teacher of all things sheep-related, and speaks calmly to the students as she goes about her work. For shearing, she sits the sheep upright and braces its sides with her legs. This gives the sheep a sense of security and each one remains still and docile while it is being sheared.

Nancy has a powerful electric clipper that works through the thick fleece like a warm knife through butter. She expertly works her way around the sheep, sometimes changing its position, but always bracing it in a way that keeps it tranquil. Her movements are subtle but you can tell that her years of experience inform each move, and that if a beginner tried it, chaos would ensue. Nancy first removes the short and not-useful belly fleece, carefully avoiding udders and other sensitive areas, then works all along the sheep’s sides and back, peeling away the fleece in one contiguous mat.

Nancy also trims each sheep’s hooves after she finishes its shearing. And Ed and Cathy give each sheep a quick injection of worming medicine to prevent parasites.

After the fleece is off, the other sheep and lambs have trouble recognizing the sheared sheep. We’re not sure if this is primarily due to the sheep’s scent changing with the removal of the fleece or if it’s a visual thing (new hairstyle), but after shearing there is a bit of confused sniffing and bleating as everyone re-establishes their identity in the flock.

The fleece is brought to the skirting table, where Lynn and the students pick it over, removing any bits of manure or hay.

Then it is gathered up and placed in a sheet so it can hang on the scale for weighing. An average fleece might weigh seven pounds; we had one this year that weighed 11¾ pounds.

Finally, the fleece is bagged up to be sent off to be processed. In a few weeks we’ll receive the cleaned wool back, ready for another year of textiles class.

And the sheared sheep begin growing out their new fleece—another renewable resource on the MCS Farm.

SingAlong with 4-5s Through 7-8s

Blog Type:  Curriculum Spotlight Date Posted:  Friday, May 20, 2016 Byline:  By Susan Harris, Lower School Music Teacher

This Wednesday, May 18, the 4-5s, 5-6s, 6-7s and 7-8s sang for each other and their parents at the annual SingAlong. Accompanied by me on guitar and Mina Yu on piano, our songs originated in The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mexico, Britain, Israel, Puerto Rico, Guatemala and Woody Guthrie, who is considered by some to be a nation unto himself. The 7-8s sang in three-part harmony. All students sang a total of six rounds, keeping their own melody while listening to another’s. What a metaphor for tolerance!

The first SingAlong took place about 20 years ago when Lois Gelernt, then Lower School director, suggested to me that it would be good for Lower School parents to experience some of the work that their children were doing in music classes. Lois suggested it be less a performance and more of—as we called it back then—a hootenanny, truly a sing-a-long, with parent participation.

Lois visualized an hour when parents, children and teachers would engage in music-making through singing, sometimes accompanied by simple percussion, and dancing. She painted a picture of a participatory, community-building event celebrating music and children.

The SingAlong has evolved over the years, sometimes being more performance-oriented, but always keeping its roots in the folk tradition of Pete Seeger who, at his concerts, was a master at eliciting singing from his audiences. The MCS music program for 4-5s through 7-8s has been based on this model which, for 35 years, has been engaging children with the ideas and mission of the school through music.