Photo by Lisa Helfert
On a Thursday in late August, five days before the start of school, Montgomery County teacher Carlos Altamirano is driving through a trailer park in Germantown with the rest of the fifth-grade team. After nearly a week of meetings, where he and his colleagues talked about everything from student proficiency rates to what they should do when a child needs food at home, the Daly Elementary School staff is out visiting the places that affect their students most: the neighborhoods where the kids live; the nearby Boys & Girls Club; Neelsville Middle School, where they’ll go next.
Principal Nora Dietz came up with the idea for a staff scavenger hunt about five years ago, when Daly was on the cusp of becoming a Title I school, because she wanted her teachers to get a sense of where their students came from. Today, about 75 staff members are divided into small groups by grade level, and every team has a “puzzle” to complete. Each puzzle piece contains a different instruction.
Home to many of our families, you will find it on [Route] 355; grab a group photo at Middlebrook Mobile Home Park when you arrive, one reads.
The trailer park, just off Frederick Road a few miles from Wegmans, is the teachers’ third stop so far. They’ve already gone to the Plum Gar recreation center, where some of their students go to summer camp. Then they stopped at Seneca Ridge, a public housing community that feeds into Daly. Dietz was there, too, handing out books and snacks to the children she saw. Nearly three-quarters of her students live in low-income households, and some of their parents are illiterate. You’ve got to get the books into kids’ hands, she likes to say.
About 125 of the 615 Daly students live at Middlebrook, the only remaining trailer park in Montgomery County. Some share a mobile home with one or two other families; a few students have told teachers that they sleep on the floor. There’s a beer and wine store near the entrance, and another near the pawn shop across the street. It’s not unusual to find broken beer bottles on the grass where some kids stand to wait for the school bus.
“I’ve always wanted to drive down here,” second-year teacher Sydney Rossano says as her group passes the two metal swing sets and seesaw the kids play on. She’s been to the trailer park before—yesterday the Daly staff came to distribute donated backpacks and brought pizza for all the kids—but she hasn’t seen all 25 acres of it. The predominantly Hispanic neighborhood is bigger than it looks.
“Alexa lives at the front-front, and she’s always the first one to text [other kids], like, ‘hey, ambulance just came in, let me know what’s going on down there,’ or ‘police are here,’ ” Altamirano says as he drives. (Some students’ names have been changed to protect their identities.) He stops his SUV in front of a mobile home. “Is he there?” he asks, leaning over in his car to get a closer look. “Daniel lives right down here, used to at least.”
Altamirano, 41, grew up in Silver Spring and didn’t know the county had a mobile home park until he started working at Daly five years ago. Now he can point out his students’ trailers. “It’s funny because you’ll be driving around and sometimes the families will, like, look at you as you’re driving through like, who are you?” he tells his colleagues. “Then, all the sudden they recognize you as a teacher and they’re like, ohhh.” He knows that some of his fifth-graders are the grown-ups at home, waking their younger siblings in the morning and getting them ready for the bus. So when they get to school he gives them extra time to settle in before he asks them to do any work. Most of his kids have breakfast in the classroom—they go crazy over the cinnamon rolls on Fridays, he says—and if they don’t eat their Craisins, he’ll have them save the unopened packages for snack time so nothing goes to waste.
“I feel like at our school there’s a whole nother level that’s not just academics,” teacher Carole Pinckney says in the car later. There are 26 children on her class list this year; 22 of them receive free and reduced-price meals (FARMS), and 10 are ESOL students. “If you go somewhere where there’s a lot of parent involvement, you’re kind of just their teacher,” Rossano adds. “Some of my students last year would be like, ‘You’re like my family.’ ” At a place like Daly, the teachers say, you don’t stop thinking about the kids when you get home. You can’t.