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Together 9.16.22

September 16, 2022 | Nancy Van Epps

by Head of School, Abby Hall Choi

The Parent Tea was lovely! For those of you who were unable to attend, here are transcripts of the speeches from school leadership expressing their hopes and dreams for the coming year.

If we haven’t met yet, I am Abby Hall Choi, the Head of School. 

On the first day of school, the kindergarten class toured the building. They snaked their line through my office to ask. “What do you do here?” 

“I make sure this is a school where we have fun and have friends because we need both of those things to help our brains grow.” Our Learning Specialist, Dana Baker, a doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins specializing in mind, brain, and teaching – would frame it this way for adults: “Work that is engaging and collaborative reduces cortisol (stress) levels and increases levels of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin – the neurotransmitters that help us feel good! We need work that is challenging and engages our interests and passions, and doing this work within the context of safe relationships helps enhance creativity and problem solving.” 

In short, in order to graduate eighth graders ready to persistently untangle complex problems- we need to be a school that is about knowing and caring for each other.

What does learning look like when we take good care of each other? Here is what it looked like yesterday:

  • Third graders studying multiplication on the second day of school 
  • Fourth graders learning how to navigate materials during STEAM
  • Preschoolers making collages
  • Fifth graders considering their goal of increased focus during independent reading time- collectively generate and analyze the best “reading spots”
  • Kindergartners drawing self-portraits
  • Second graders sharing shapes and using terms like parallelogram, and wondering could a square also be a parallelogram?
  • Seventh graders determining which stock to buy and track
  • Eighth graders staying after school for high school guidance

Knowing and caring together—when we do it very well—it looks like magic. But it is not. We pay attention to ourselves, each other and most importantly God and God’s love—and we learn together!

Good morning. I am Nancy Van Epps, Director of Marketing and Communications.

Mustard Seed is a magical place!

That’s what I stated here in my speech last year at this event when I had only been employed at the school for a week or two.

Well, it isn’t magical. Nothing here happens without intention or design. Nothing happens without hard work and planning and continual improvement and tweaking. It isn’t a magical place. It just feels like one.

In my year here, I have come to have so much respect for the teachers and program directors and leaders. They view this time in a student’s life as the most important and they dedicate their lives to honoring it. I wish that you could see how hard they work and how much they care for students on a macro and micro level. I wish you could see how they are constantly seeking out and incorporating the findings of new cognitive research and their own observations into their practice. They make magic for the students.

The problem is that they are so busy doing their jobs and they are humble, so they have neither the time nor inclination to spread the word about Mustard Seed. That’s my job. Through social media and websites and printed pieces, I tell the story about the school and people are starting to hear it. Thank you for sharing your family’s stories with me.

My name is Tania Oro-Hahn

I serve as the director of Diversity Equity Inclusion and Belonging

“Belonging has been shown to have a significant impact on a range of factors associated with wellbeing. These areas include life satisfaction, general wellbeing, clinical depression, cognitive performance, academic outcomes, and physical health. Belonging is an important aspect of psychological functioning. Schools offer unique opportunities for mediating belonging for school-aged children.”  Web site:

At Mustard Seed School we also know that we 

belong to God 

and God belongs to us 

and in God we find ourselves truly at home.  

  • each of us made in the image of God- 
  • In every singular particularity
  • We belong together as the family of God.

Our goal in our teaching, training, engagements, activities

  • People are seen, 
  • They are heard, 
  • They are known, 
  • and they are loved. 
  • And that each one here belongs. 

To that end, 

  • I lead training to help staff engage in equitable teaching;  
  • And help students gain skills 

Please be on the look out for: 

Our 10/27 event at 7 pm

Additional Come Talk with Us @ DEIB events where we:

  • Enter into a community of learners
  • Share our thoughts and goals for our learning community
  • Specifically this year, we
    • Invite you to come learn with us.
    • Engage in authentic discussion and learning.
    • Help us create a Public Square and exchange of ideas. 
  • Changemakers Leadership group:  
    • Seeking racial and gender equity at MSS and Hoboken
    • Co-lead with Ashley Sweeny

You can reach me via email for questions or a meeting. You will hear from me via blogs and special events. 

Good morning. I am Emily Sytsma and I’m the director of the early childhood program at Mustard Seed School. That means I support our program in preschool through first grade. I am the person to contact if you have questions about the program or about your child’s experience in these classes.

We are so excited to have students back in the building after a quiet summer. The hum of their busyness is delightful to listen to. And we’re thankful for your time this morning with us. It’s so good to see you all here.

We’re looking forward to this year ahead with our young children. I’m excited about the new expansion to our literacy program we will be trying in kindergarten this year. We will also be piloting developmentally-appropriate and screen-free coding and robotics projects with our youngest students later this year. Last year we piloted two engineering and design units in our kindergarten and first grade; they were a success and will be using them again this year.

I also support the extended day program at Mustard Seed School and we are so glad to be able to offer that care to students to families who need it. We’re also excited to be able to offer enrichment opportunities for students after school again. We are reestablishing a relationship with Mile Square Theatre with a drama class that begins next week.  Later this year we host a Lego class with Bricks for Kidz. And I’m really happy that we can open up Ms Welesko’s amazing yoga class to more students.  She’s been doing yoga with our extended day students for several years and now more students will be able to join her for this new offering in the winter.

Finally, this fall we will begin a toddler music, art, and play class for children who are not yet old enough for preschool. Ms. Cassie Hinner, who is an alum and former MSS teacher has graciously offered to lead this class and it looks like it will be a wonderful addition to our program.

So keep your eyes open for all of these opportunities in the newsletters and on our social media. Again, we are so glad you are here with us at the beginning of another new year!

Hello, I’m Sebastian Olukun, Director of Business & Operations.

I have worked at Mustard Seed for 17 years serving many roles. My daughter, Jabari, is an MSS alum who graduated from Spelman this year. The systems that fall under my purview are Admissions, Building Maintenance & Operations, the Front Office and the Business Office. I work with wonderful people including two MSS graduates who now have children who attend this school. Stacy and Ashley are our long-time receptionist Gloria’s granddaughters.

The work of Business and Operations team is in support of our fabulous teachers—making certain that our teachers have the things they need so that they can fully focus on teaching—and in support of our families, helping to ensure that MSS is a “safe, strong and beautiful” place for all of our students. 

Good Morning, I’m Shakeh Tashjian, Program Director for grades two through eight.

Back in the day, the powers that be in the world of education pitted joy against rigor, convinced that one worked against the other. Thankfully, we now know that this is not the case, that joyful engagement in learning leads to higher expectations and that when expert teachers appropriately challenge their students, they nurture a love of learning that leads to lifelong learners.

What does this look like at Mustard Seed School? One way we do this is with collaboration, for example grades 2 and 3 study science and social studies together, 4 and 5 have STEAM together, and 6 – 8 work as academic teams in the afternoon. There are also opportunities for individual and individualized research, which generally results in a presentation. If you were here last year, you may have attended the Global Expo for which 2nd and 3rd grade students spent a couple of weeks learning about their country. Grades 4 and 5 did a few STEAM presentations, one of which was for parents and we hope to have more of those this year. The 6th grade Social Justice Project moved me to tears, literally every presentation moved me to tears. And if you have not seen a 7 or 8 exhibition, you will have to take my word for it that you will be inspired. These 12, 13, 14-year old children stand fearlessly in front of their peers and adults and present their research about a piece of literature or art or music or a mathematical concept or a scientific phenomenon. All you can do is smile and pretend you understand what they are telling you, because it is clear that they are the experts in the room.

All this to say that education without action is not alive. Developing and nurturing changemakers who make God’s world a better place requires joy and rigor. Thank you to the beautiful people in this building who make this possible and to YOU for valuing this, prioritizing it, choosing it, and standing by that choice. We appreciate you and everyone in this community. Thank you.

Hello, I’m Chris Casazza, Director of Development.

If you attended the first day worship, you heard Fr. Santora give us a compliment. That we do it better at Mustard Seed. He was specifically referencing that we do it better than Catholic schools. But we have had other schools visit us and ask us how we do things and we say, we just do them. The Mustard Seed way is unique. Other schools want to be like us but they can’t. Because what we do is hard. The work we do here is very hard. It is very hard for a teacher to focus on one child as an individual and then repeat that 15 to 20 times in a class. It’s very hard to stick to our mission and keep tuition within reach of so many. It’s hard to follow the call of Abby to walk with Jesus. It’s hard to be open to your authentic self; to love without judgment, to offer criticism without judgment.

But that is what we do here. We work very hard and we do it gladly. Mustard Seed teachers are the happiest teachers I’ve ever seen. Honestly, it takes some getting used to. But we do our hard jobs gladly.

And being a parent is hard. I’ve heard tell, I have a cat, so I don’t know first hand. But the choices parents make, the decisions, the sacrifices. It’s a hard job.

But to bring up the word magic again. There is some magic that happens when we bring the hard work of Mustard Seed together with the hard work of being a parent. When we put those things together it becomes easy. 

As development director, I want to grow that partnership between the parents and the school. As well as the partnership between our alumni, and our past parents, and our friends. But we’re here because you’re with us every day. And I look forward to working with you in support of Mustard Seed.

Mustard Seed depends on revenues from tuition, from donations, and from volunteering. And I hope you will help us with that along the way. 

We have Merry Match coming up at the end of November. We’re really close to 100% Board participation in the annual fund; we’re close to 100% participation from faculty and staff. And I really want to get to 100% from our parents. And when it comes to fundraising, there is no magic number. If you look at a giving tree, the gifts we get to reach our goal, we have a few large gifts at the top and many gifts at the bottom and many, many levels in between. So there is a place for everyone no matter the size of your donation.

We will also have the Mustard Seed Gala in April that I hope you will join us at. We’re rebranding it to a Gala this year. Last year, I had great volunteers who made that event successful. And I’d love to have even more volunteers this year. There’s also opportunities to volunteer during Merry Match.

I look forward to working with you this year, to getting to 100% participation. And I think I am the closer, so I will say that I know you put great trust in us with your children, and we are incredibly grateful for that trust. And I also know that parents make everything we do possible. So I thank you for your time today and I thank you for the support that I know you will offer this coming year. But if you want to stay and mingle and chat you’re more than welcome to, or if you just want to grab a cup of coffee to start your day we have plenty. Thank you again.

Nancy Van Epps

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