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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Dietz often jokes that she has six children of her own and 600 others at school. “Kids are my life,” says the grandmother of six. One of her proudest moments each year is the Clarksburg High School graduation, when she gets to see her former students walk across the stage. Photos by Lisa Helfert

A few things struck Dietz when she left Daly in January 2015 and spent six weeks at Rachel Carson Elementary School in the Kentlands. At the time, she had a principal intern at Daly who was required to take over as acting principal, so she was temporarily moved to another school. Her first week there, she walked into the cafeteria and saw students with bento boxes and all sorts of fancy lunches. Some had thermoses filled with hot soup. Look at what they’re eating, she thought. 

It seemed like everyone was wearing Under Armour, Dietz says, which she wasn’t used to seeing. Kids stepped out of their parents’ cars holding one, sometimes two instruments, and stayed for lessons after school; at Daly, some third-graders need help paying the $5 fee for the recorders they use in music class. The families were lovely, Dietz says, and the teachers worked hard, but it felt like a different world. For Valentine’s Day, the PTA sponsored a party for the fifth-graders, complete with a DJ, photo booth props and cotton candy. Dietz looked around in awe—her PTA is struggling, and Daly teachers often end up covering a portion of the cost of their classroom holiday parties. This is amazing, she kept thinking. My kids would love to have something like this. 

When Dietz started as principal at Captain James E. Daly Jr. Elementary in 2007—the school is named after a fallen county police officer—about half of her students received FARMS, an indicator of poverty. Now the school’s FARMS rate is nearly 73 percent. “That’s a huge change in a short amount of time,” she says. About 40 percent of all elementary school students in the county qualify for FARMS. In order to be eligible, the annual income of a family of four cannot exceed $45,510, or $3,793 a month; some Daly families bring in less than half of that. “[From the outside] we look beautiful—you drive by and go, this is a Title I school?” says Dietz, 62. “But you have to look inside the walls to know what’s going on.” 

Like much of the county, Germantown has been changing for a while, and that shift can be seen in the fifth-grade class photos hanging in the hallway at Daly, not far from a banner that reads Hope Lives Here. Fifteen years ago, white students made up 32 percent of the school’s population; 24 percent of students were Hispanic, 31 percent were black and 14 percent were Asian. According to 2016-2017 data from Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), fewer than 7 percent of students at Daly are white, while 44 percent are Hispanic, 40 percent are black and 6 percent are Asian. “Many people still think of Gaithersburg [and] north as being highly homogenous, still very white, still very rural—and it’s none of those things,” says Mike Knapp, a Germantown resident who served two terms on the County Council. 

Fifth-grade teacher Sydney Rossano helps coordinate breakfast in her classroom at Daly. The school’s motto is, “Where every student is a Daly success!” Photos by Lisa Helfert

Dietz says there are people within the school system that don’t necessarily understand the level of need in other parts of the county. Daly is the only Title I school in the Clarksburg High School cluster; five of the six other elementary schools that feed into Clarksburg have significantly lower FARMS rates. An administrator from a middle school a few miles away was surprised to hear that some of Dietz’s students didn’t have winter coats. “We used to have some schools, some of the more affluent schools would adopt another school,” says Dietz, who lives in Germantown and often runs into students on weekends. “I guess that’s kind of gone away.”

Early on, Dietz decided she wanted to turn Daly into what she calls a “community school.” She envisioned a place where students and their parents felt safe and knew they could ask for help, where grades and test scores weren’t the only thing that mattered. She knew the job wouldn’t be easy. From the beginning, it was challenging to get through to families who don’t speak the language to make sure they sent their kids to school on time and showed up for meetings. After Donald Trump was elected president, Dietz says, some immigrant parents started telling staff that they didn’t want to put their names on any school forms. A few were concerned about sending their children to school at all. A crying third-grader approached Dietz and said, “That man’s gonna take my mom away.”

One student came to the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor when she was 5 or 6; her mother was already here. “She was held in Texas by herself for a few months. By herself,” the child’s ESOL teacher says. “She came here and she didn’t speak for three months.” A few years ago, a second-grader who’d never been in trouble was sent to Dietz’s office because he had a toy gun in his backpack. When Dietz asked him why he’d brought it to school, the boy said there were a lot of people living in his house—including some he didn’t know—and it was his favorite toy, and if he didn’t keep it with him, somebody would take it. “It broke my heart,” she says. A police officer who works with the school called Dietz once to warn her that a SWAT team would be raiding one of the mobile homes that morning. Two of her students were inside. “The father got arrested, with them there,” says Dietz, a grandmother of six. “That was a tough day.”

Of the 133 public elementary schools in Montgomery County, 25 receive federal funding through Title I, a program designed to improve the academic achievement of disadvantaged children. As a Title I school, Daly has reduced class sizes in grades K-2 (kindergarten classrooms have 16 to 18 children); summer learning programs that are free to students; family involvement funds to cover things like food for school events; and additional staff positions, including a math content specialist, a parent community coordinator and a primary talent development coach.

Teacher Carlos Altamirano focuses on building relationships with students. “If I can get them to understand that I actually care about them, then they tend to care about themselves a little bit more," he says, “and work a little harder.” Photo by Lisa Helfert

Recently, Dietz has had extra help: In early 2016, the Germantown-based Healthcare Initiative Foundation (HIF), a grant-making organization that supports health care nonprofits serving Montgomery County residents, began the process to develop a five-year pilot program called Thriving Germantown (TG), specifically for the Daly community. “There isn’t an anchor nonprofit in Germantown, and there isn’t a municipality, but here we have the fastest-growing population and poverty rate in the county,” says HIF President Crystal Carr Townsend, who has spent much of her career overseeing social service programs. “How do you make headway on this? How do you catch this tide before Daly becomes a 90-percent FARMS school?” 

After meeting with Dietz and hearing about Daly, Townsend, a Germantown resident, was shocked to learn about the challenges the school was up against. Twenty-nine county schools have a Linkages to Learning (LTL) program, a community-school partnership designed to assist low-income students and their families by connecting them to services and resources; nine sites have school-based health centers. Over the years, Dietz has requested a LTL program, but says funding hasn’t allowed it. 

“Your role is to educate,” Townsend told her when they met. “We can identify and bring community resources to do the rest.”

With support from several funders, Family Services Inc. operates the Thriving Germantown Community HUB, designed to help Germantown families connect to health care, early child care, food assistance, workforce development, ESOL classes and more. The focal point is Daly: Each school year, families with a child in pre-kindergarten or kindergarten will be eligible to enroll in the program, and by the end of the pilot the entire Daly community will have the option to participate, Townsend says. 

Through the TG planning, HIF has brought together local nonprofits—including Germantown Help, Aspire Counseling, Holy Cross Health and EveryMind—and provided the necessary funding to begin offering coordinated services for Daly students and their families. Because of TG, the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, a nonprofit based in Silver Spring, parked its mobile eye care van at Daly last year and performed vision screenings on 188 children; 44 of them needed glasses. This will be the second year that about 20 Daly third-graders get to participate in an after-school program with Identity, a nonprofit that provides academic support and social services to Latino youths. Manna Food Center is working with TG to offer hands-on nutrition education classes for Daly students and increase access to fresh produce; the new Manna Mobile Kitchen & Pop-Up Pantry is scheduled to make several visits to the school and the mobile home park over the next year. 

Even with all the support, Daly can be a tough place to work, Dietz says, and she often tells that to applicants in their interviews. The school has enrichment opportunities and classes for advanced students, but with so many disadvantaged children in a classroom, it can be hard for teachers to make time for the accelerated group. “What are you doing for our kids?” parents have asked. 

Last spring, Dietz found herself involved in a family conflict concerning a mother who had barely seen her son grow up, a father who’d been deported, and a grandmother who didn’t want to lose the boy she was helping to raise. Daly staff had worked with the child for two years—at one point he was calling his Hispanic teacher “Mom”—and then one day his mother showed up at school asking if she could see him. Dietz knows she could have said “not here, not on school grounds,” but then what? She’d been told the boy’s father had a history of gang involvement, and she knows what can happen to at-risk kids who don’t get the help they need. 

“I just worry for this little boy—what’s going to happen to him?” Dietz says. “I can’t say, ‘Go away.’ I can’t do it. I just can’t. And I don’t know, I really believe that in our county many principals are doing the same thing. This is the whole other side of the work we’re doing.”

It’s the small victories that keep the staff going: an ESOL student jumps a level in reading; they track down furniture for a family or help a parent find a job; a child who spends a lot of time in the office doesn’t get into trouble all month. Staff members cried recently when a second-grader with selective mutism had a conversation with her teacher. You have to look beyond the data, Dietz says. Many of her kids aren’t “rock stars” with their test scores, but they’re making progress. She’s had people tell her it doesn’t seem fair that her students are expected to meet the same benchmarks as kids in other parts of the county when they don’t have the same opportunities. “I guess I could get hung up on that, and probably have at times,” she says. “But what we talk about in staff meetings is: We have six hours a day. We’ve got to make every second count.”