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 Daly’s fifth-grade promotion ceremony in June, the graduates were seated in rows in the gym, and the kindergarten students were lined up on the steps of the stage. “I hope that this year the fifth-graders have come home and spoken about being a buddy to their kindergarten friends,” Dietz told parents. “Now you get to see the end result of that relationship.” Then came the moment that gets her every time: when the big kids and the little ones sing to each other. The fifth-graders started, then the kindergartners repeated after them. 

So long,
So long.
See you soon,
See you soon.
My friend,
My friend. 

Dietz stood on the stage with her staff, tearing up as she mouthed the words.

So long, 
So long. 
Till we meet,
Till we meet.

After the ceremony, families gathered in the back of the gym for cake. One mom, Fily Aw, whose son was heading to middle school, gave Dietz a hug and didn’t seem to want to let go. Aw, who has seven children, grew up in Senegal and stopped going to school after fourth grade. She’s leaned on the Daly staff since her 14-year-old son was in kindergarten there. The school gave her a gift card for groceries when her husband was in Africa and she didn’t have a job. They helped her understand what ADHD meant, and guided her through the process of getting extra support for one of her boys. At one point, Aw considered sending that son to live with family in Africa, where she thought he’d be happier and get more attention. 

“No, don’t send him,” she remembers Altamirano telling her. He’d already taught her older son. “I’m going to have him in fifth grade, and I’ll take care of him. Don’t worry.”

A few years ago, one of Aw’s boys turned to her in the car and said he’d been thinking about how much it bothers him that she didn’t know how to read. Aw, now 47, started to cry. The next morning she went to Daly and asked to see Dietz. She didn’t have an appointment, Aw says, but she rarely does. 

“Yesterday, [my son] told me one word, and I never can forget that word in my life,” Aw told the principal. “He told me, ‘I wish my mom can read.’ ” 

“You can’t read, Ms. Aw?” Dietz asked. 

“No, because I don’t do education,” she said. “I don’t go to school in this country. My English is poor.” 

Aw remembers Dietz telling her that she needed to believe in herself, that she could learn to read and she could learn how to help her kids with their homework. We’ll find you a place to go, Dietz said. 

In Senegal, the principal was in charge of education and nothing else, Aw says. But Dietz always asks her, “What do you need?” Aw once tried to register her sons for a program at the Boys & Girls Club, but missed the deadline and found out it was full. Dietz stepped in. “I went there and said, ‘Mrs. Dietz told me to come,’ ” Aw says. “They [enrolled] my children. Can you believe it?”

Last year, a Daly parent who lives in public housing told Dietz that she wanted to intern at the school as part of her workforce development program. The woman was trying to get her life on track, and needed experience to put on her résumé. Dietz spoke to the program’s director and worked out a schedule. 

“Oh my God, I’m so excited,” Dietz told her husband, Pat, that night after work. “I met with this mom and she’s going to come work 36 hours a week. …If she does this right, I bet I can get her into building services, or food services. And she’d get benefits.” 

Pat, Dietz’s husband of 11 years, smiled. “You’ve got her whole life planned,” he said. He was used to hearing things like that. He’s had to remind his wife that she shouldn’t go to the mobile home park alone at night, and that even though she wants the property owner to install more lighting and build a covered bus shelter—so her kids have a safe place to wait, instead of lining up along Frederick Road—she can’t make him do it. He teases Dietz sometimes because she gets so involved with Daly families. This is what she wanted, he likes to remind her, a community school.   

Two days later, the internship was over. The woman gave a child from her neighborhood a mean look in the hallway, and the student’s mother got upset. “It fell apart,” Dietz says. “She tried, but she couldn’t do it.”

There are some situations you can’t fix, she says, and those are the ones that keep her up at night. She can make sure the boy whose family is homeless feels safe at Daly, and remind him that he doesn’t have to worry about anything else when he’s at school, but she can’t give him a place to live. Her staff can tell families where they can get help, and make sure they know the bus routes, but that doesn’t mean they’ll go.