Twenty years ago, one of our co-founders and several MSS teachers visited Reggio, Italy, to observe a school that they heard mirrored the innovative philosophies and practices developed at Mustard Seed. They were thrilled to see that this program across the ocean shared their love of a beautiful environment and respect for children as agents of their own learning. Today, families often comment on the natural light, responsive curriculum, three studios (ateliers), and student-produced art that lines the walls of Mustard Seed. All of these elements are in concert with an approach to education usually found in Europe.
As early as second grade, Mustard Seed students are challenged to apply information acquired on the computer and in books to solve real world problems. Working individually and in collaborative groups, they construct knowledge through hands-on engagement. From launching presentations that examine common misperceptions about outer space to major exhibitions requiring weeks of preparation that address social justice issues like animal research and border wars, students are given the opportunity and tools to pursue intensive exploration on complex topics of personal interest. They build, represent, and express their deep conceptual understanding through both academic and artistic engagement.
Small class sizes, responsive classrooms, and often seminar-style teaching empowers our students at every developmental stage to thrive. Honoring the child’s natural interests and curiosity, we allow our students to be agents of their own learning while at the same time providing a foundation of challenging curriculum and personalized instructional strategies. We expect a lot of our students and they deliver. Our MAP testing scores, measuring both core knowledge and growth in Middle School, are consistently off the charts. More than 90% of our students are accepted into their first choice in high school and young alums report that they are better prepared for high school and beyond than their peers.
Cognitive researchers extoll the benefits of certain physiological preconditions in optimal brain development: Emotional well-being and feelings of belonging are essential elements in any learning environment. Our expert teachers’ years of focus and specialized training in preschool to grade 8 education have provided them with ample opportunities to observe and identify potential stress points in the life of an MSS student. We have developed proactive strategies and interventions to buffer those stress points.
For example, we host playdates every summer for our preschool students and their families in the park across the street from the school. Children, accompanied by their families and caregivers, have the opportunity to meet and visit with their teachers in a casual setting. They observe their parents interacting with other parents and their teacher. They see siblings. Long before the official first day of school, they share goldfish crackers and play on the slide with their future classmates.
In addition to an expression of our love of God and a religious, ethics and music educational moment, our daily worship gatherings also support a smooth transition to the day for our younger students. Families are welcome to the brief service held just after drop-off, so Preschool and Lower School students can ease into their school day in the company of their loved ones from home.
At the other end of the spectrum, our 7th and 8th grade students participate in a dynamic high school guidance program that includes a speaker series of representatives of area high schools and young MSS alums. Armed with firsthand information and an acknowledgement of the stressors, our students and families are better able to navigate the high school admissions process successfully. Through the years, more than 90% of MSS students are consistently accepted into their first choice for high school.
“Faith is trusting that God is love and that we are created for love. This is the generative soil that is the foundation of Mustard Seed School. Our school strives for excellence in learning. As a Christian school, we also emphasize learning to love, for love is the heart of a rich and full life.”—MSS Co-Founder Shanna Pargellis
Sometimes families wonder about sending their children to a Christian school if they are not practicing religion in their home, if they are practicing a faith that is different from Christianity, or if their family has identities in more than one faith tradition. What we know to be true is that spirituality is a component of the human condition whether or not it is connected with an organized religion. As educators of the whole child, we attend to more than academic development. We believe that every child benefits from the development of a moral compass that supports seeing beyond one’s own needs to act in service and advocacy. Every child benefits from delighting in a sense of wonder at creation and nature that engenders a joyful appreciation of beauty. Every child benefits from storytelling that connects them to the narrative of human experience over time and throughout the world.
Our school calendar of worship celebrations includes traditional Jewish holidays like Passover and Simchat Tora (pictured right) as part of our Christian heritage as well as regional religious festivals like Las Posadas and Mardi Gras. We ardently believe that our hearts are enriched by the cultural and religious diversity of our student body. With a respect for our families’ personal understanding of spirituality and in keeping with the directives of the Collaborative for Spirituality in Education, we purposely aspire to creating a space where all young people feel respected, understood, and loved.
Mustard Seed School seriously considers the joy of our students. For some students, joy may mean feelings of comfort and belonging. Our robust Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, & Belonging (DEIB) advocacy, clubs and events ensure that every student feels seen and valued as their authentic self.
For others, joy is about the fun celebrations that always seem to be happening around the school or maybe, the delight of the art and music programs. They might find joy in our frequent fields trips to the woods and countryside. Because they are agents of their own learning, students naturally find joy in their studies. In a similar fashion to the beauty of the space and the rigorous curriculum, the joyous culture of the school community may feel organic. However, it is cultivated actively and with intention.
Often when you ask an MSS Middle School student to identify their favorite subject, you will be met with a puzzled look—or an exhaustive list of favorite school subjects. Their responses are a testament to the intrinsic integration of our curriculum, and a world view that is naturally interconnected.
Recently for an engineering project, Middle School science students were tasked with researching a favorite architect, and creating furniture that reflected the architect’s design principles and aesthetics (following the example of architect Frank Gehry’s wiggle chair). They developed an oral presentation accompanied by visual aids to share their thinking and findings with their fellow students, and received feedback from classmates. This “science” assignment entailed drawing plans and constructing models, writing a speech, building a slide presentation, and placing their chosen architect within the context of the history of architecture.
Using scholarly tools and processes, students employed both flexible and efficient thinking. They pursued rigorous learning by accessing prior knowledge, setting goals, designing action steps, executing plans, and engaging in reflection. Expanding beyond the boundaries of siloed school subjects, projects like these cultivate habits of mind like curiosity, persistence, and a thirst for understanding that brain researchers tell us are essential for lifelong learners.
A visitor to Mustard Seed might be surprised to see fifth grade students regularly receiving coaching from their teacher on reading classmates’ non-verbal clues, sharpening their listening skills, and practicing empathy. For giving speeches effectively, they are taught about the importance of making eye-contact and providing constructive feedback to their peers. Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) is a vital pillar of our commitment to educating the whole child and our Christian tradition.
SEL was embedded organically into our curriculum from the beginning. As articulated in our 20 Habits document developed years ago by co-founder Shanna Pargellis, Mustard Seed students are encouraged to express kindness by serving, welcoming, and encouraging. On the preschool playground, the teacher may say things like, I see that you played with the same two friends this week. Are there other classroom friends that you can play with today? From the beginning, Mustard Seed students learn that the answer to their classmates’ question, “Can I play?” is always yes.
The behavioral infrastructure established in preschool is further expanded and refined throughout the academic career of the student at Mustard Seed. We intentionally devote the first six weeks of every school year to learning increasingly sophisticated age-appropriate rules of behavior and constructing a covenant tailor-made for each class.
By eighth grade, students actively engage in creating a nuanced definition of what is and what is not community. Their answer to “Can I play?” could be, “Not today because I have already made plans for park. Can we play tomorrow? Let’s see what we can do together.”
MSS students demonstrate their appreciate of the interconnectedness of all people and creation through faith, arts, service, and academics.
Mustard Seed is fortunate to have such a diverse student body! When the second and third grade classes make their annual field trip to Ellis Island, there are always students entrusted with precious family names to locate on the memorial. Our young alums tell us that this field trip is one of their most treasured memories of elementary school.
Woven into our integrated curriculum are studies of scientists and artists and language and authors from around the world. Our worship celebrations, like Los Posadas, Juneteenth, and Passover, allow our students to enjoy a kaleidoscope of cultures and see the world through many different lenses. Our robust Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, & Belonging (DEIB) efforts, lead by DEIB Chair Señora Oro-Hahn, also broaden the perspectives of our students.
Knowing and caring for God’s world is a major tenant of our mission statement: Service projects like the Kindergarten Baby Food Jar Collection and the Seventh Grade Lenten Collection to support The Arbor Day Foundation, and field trips like the Hudson Hike, cultivate a mindset of empathy and responsibility for people and places. From an early age, our students see themselves as citizens of a global community and compassionate advocates who learn from and serve with others in solidarity.
Our students pursue rigorous learning by accessing prior knowledge, setting goals, designing action steps, executing plans, and engaging in reflection. The practice of research and continual testing of hypotheses and models is a Mustard Seed signature experience. Intentionally incorporated into our project-based learning, students are presented with an abundance of opportunities to solve increasingly complex real-world problems starting in preschool. Given the space for awe and wonder, students can unleash their creativity, ask questions, maybe fail, reconfigure and try again. Through everything from wondering questions in preschool worship to a lower school global expo to middle school engineering projects, students actively cultivate resilience as well as empathy for perspectives other than their own.
Mustard Seed School opened its basement doors to 16 students more than 40 years ago. Today, 129 students enter our four-floor campus every morning. To learn more about our vision for the future and the continued growth of the Mustard Seed School community, check out “Thriving Roots and Flourishing Branches: Strategic Plan 2018-2023.” strategic plan With this document, we reaffirm our commitment to the highest level of education, the students and families we serve, and our identity as a community of faith.