Bethesda Magazine | November-December 2017

Hope Lives Here

Nearly three-quarters of the students at Germantown's Daly Elementary School are from low-income families. For the principal and her staff, academics are only part of the job.

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At a staff meeting this past summer, the team leaders for each grade level were asked to talk about how students performed on the previous year’s proficiency tests. Altamirano, who helps run an after-school club called the Bulldog Boys, stood up to share data on the incoming fifth-graders. Of 104 students, he said, 46 percent had not met the benchmark on their MAP-R (Measures of Academic Progress—Reading) tests in fourth grade. The achievement test is given to county students in grades 3 through 8. A colleague talked about the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) results, which weren’t good, either. 

“When we look at this data, 24 percent are not meeting any benchmark—that means not MAP-R, not MAP-M [math] and not PARCC,” Altamirano said. “But we have hope for these guys, you’ve got to have hope for these guys.”

He pointed out some of the lowest scores: fourth percentile, first percentile, sixth percentile. “Those are single-digit percentiles these kids are scoring in,” he told colleagues. “Yes, it’s going to be difficult to get them up to benchmark, but can we get them into the 20th percentile? Can we get them into the 25th percentile?”  

Altamirano came to Daly by accident. He was applying for his first teaching job after having worked as a sandwich chef and an insurance salesman, and for some reason he thought he had a meeting scheduled with the principal there. He showed up, hit the buzzer, and Dietz came to the front door. “I’m not expecting an interview,” she said. He’d applied to Daly but hadn’t heard back yet; he was at the wrong school. “But I just saw your résumé—do you want to come in and talk?”

He was a little frightened when he first started teaching at Daly. He’d spent his whole academic life in private school. His father had a stroke and a brain aneurysm when Altamirano was 4 or 5, which left the man unable to move or talk. His dad’s sister thought it would be good for Altamirano, an only child, to go to school with his cousins, and she helped his mom look after him while he attended St. Andrew Apostle School in Silver Spring. Then Altamirano went to St. John’s College High School in D.C. 

“That was my dad’s wish,” says Altamirano, who is Latino. “He used to work in D.C. as a mechanic, and he would drive home, and he used to always say, ‘See those kids over there in the military uniform? That’s gonna be my son one day.’ ” 

Altamirano had some tough students in his first year, and he was strict because he had to be. “That’s one of my things; if I set the expectation to be high, [they] usually fall right in line,” he says. Midway through that first year at Daly he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and he had to take an extended leave of absence. A couple of his students got into fights in his classroom while he was out, which hadn’t happened before, and another got caught writing a note to the long-term substitute. I hate you, it read. But Altamirano knew the boy was just having trouble adjusting to his teacher being gone. “I tried to come back and visit, but after a while it got kind of hard. I came in and I was bald, and I’m sure that wasn’t easy for them to see,” he says. “I came back for their graduation though.” 

Altamirano, whose cancer is now in remission, fills one of his classroom walls with photos of his students that he takes throughout the year, documenting everything they do. He has a store in the corner of his classroom where kids can use their bulldog bones to get little toys or decorative pencils he picks up for them. In the winter, he’ll bring in hats and gloves from Target or a dollar store. 

“By the time Christmas comes, they’re buying stuff for their sisters and for their brothers and for their moms,” he says. “It starts to become a little less about them.” 

Every year he gives his kids a Popeyes party when they’ve done something really good. They’re fifth-graders now, he says, and all they’ve had at parties for the last four years is pizza, so he spends about $100 of his own money, and each child gets two pieces of chicken and some fries. When he was ordering last year, a woman who works at the restaurant walked up to him and said, “You taught my son in fifth grade, and you gave him a Popeyes party. The fries are on me.”

You have to build relationships with kids at Daly, Altamirano says. That’s something he learned early on. Every Monday he tells the kids about his weekend. He asked his class to vote on whether they thought he and his wife, who were expecting their first child in October, were having a boy or a girl. The University of Maryland graduate has Terps memorabilia all over his classroom. “These kids, college is something that isn’t put on the table for a lot of them,” Altamirano says. “Some of the respect that I get here is, here is a Latino man, just like my dad, just like my uncle, that has gone through education, who has a college degree.” 

Three years ago he taught a young girl who was reserved with her emotions at school and struggled with self-esteem problems. She was really bright, and lived in the trailer park. “It doesn’t matter what your background is, what your financial status is, I know you—you’re going to go to college. You’re going to do great things,” he’d tell her. “Nobody can take that away from you.” You can’t get through to every kid, he’s realized. Or maybe you’re getting through but you just can’t see it right away. This girl broke down on the last day of school, and her friends told Altamirano that they’d never see her cry before. She didn’t want to leave.