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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There’s order in the hallways at Daly, where students walk in neat lines along red paths on the floor and some of the younger ones pretend they’re carrying a bubble in their mouth so they don’t talk too much. Kids quietly check out books in the library, which has a reading shelf dedicated to Dietz’s mother, a former county principal who volunteered at Daly, and use their “bulldog bones”—tokens they earn for good behavior—to buy small toys from the school store. 

But the behavior issues are there, like at many schools, both in the classroom and on the playground. Fights break out at recess, sometimes stemming from problems between families who live in the same neighborhood. Kids use inappropriate language that they’ve picked up from adults at home. 

“It’s really hard when you have to look at an 8-year-old and say, ‘You’re the one who’s going to have to rise above, you’re the one who’s going to have to make better decisions,’ ” says Dietz, who was a finalist three years ago for the Edward Shirley Award for Excellence in Educational Administration and Supervision, named for a former MCPS educator. For a few months last year, she and another Daly administrator took turns riding the school bus home with one group of students because the driver was having problems keeping the kids under control. “It was embarrassing,” Dietz says. “That’s what I told the parents: I’m embarrassed—because they’re my kids, too.”

A staff member says some substitutes don’t like to come to Daly because the days can be so stressful. One teacher recently left after a year. About 67 percent of the professional staff has worked at Daly for five years or longer; most of the county’s Title I elementary schools have a higher retention rate. Still, some staff members don’t want to leave. The music teacher has been there for 26 years; one of the counselors started in 1997. A teacher who’s worked at other county schools says she’s happiest at Daly.

“It takes a special type to work at Daly,” one staff member says. “We have so many kids whose home lives are a disaster. …But it’s my job to serve these kids, and I’m not going to give up on them. I don’t care how much of a jerk this kid is being—he needs unconditional love. He needs someone who’s never going to give up on him. How’s that cycle going to get broken unless somebody never gives up on him?”

Dietz, who calls her teachers “unsung heroes,” admits that staff morale isn’t as high as she’d like it to be. They get together for group outings—several staff members, including Dietz, went to Ocean City together after school ended in June—but a recent employee survey showed that some feel they aren’t getting enough feedback and recognition. That falls on her, Dietz says. “It came down to, the teachers really want to hear from me, they want written notes,” she says. “I was thinking about how often I did that last year—probably not as much as I should have.”

Part of the problem with morale, Dietz says, is that teachers work long hours and give their students everything they have, but the school still struggles to keep up academically. “When you have kids that are very challenging, that can bring you down,” she says. “Then, when you have on top of it the milestone data you’re held accountable for, and we don’t quite meet those benchmarks, it can be really demoralizing.”

Dietz tries to emphasize the positives. Last year, 90 percent of kindergartners met or exceeded the county benchmark for reading. “If you look at a kid who’s made a year and a half growth in reading, and [the child is] an ESOL student—could be ESOL, FARMS and special education—and they’re making some gains, that’s a success for us,” she says.

Success also comes in other forms. Mustapha Saine, last year’s student council president, couldn’t wait to get up and tell his story at the school’s fifth-grade promotion ceremony in June. Altamirano, his teacher, had asked his students to write a memoir about their time at Daly; four kids from the fifth grade were selected as speakers. The day of the ceremony, Mustapha, who still refers to Altamirano as a role model, wore black slacks and a blue button-down shirt with a tie. “I was taught that education was the only way to make it through this world,” he started. He talked about how fourth grade wasn’t his best year, how his grades were good but his behavior wasn’t. “I would talk in class, run around, do all sorts of mischiefs I shouldn’t have been doing,” he said. “Until one day—ring, ring—it was a phone call home.”

His parents didn’t punish him that night, he told the audience. Instead, they talked to him and inspired him to do better. And soon, with Altamirano’s help, he turned things around. “Now I have a legacy to look back on,” he said, “from fourth-grade troublemaker to fifth-grade leader.” The 10-year-old, who wants to be a teacher, a lawyer or a U.S. president, went on to paraphrase Walt Whitman. “I guess the quote that fits me is, ‘Keep your head towards the sunshine, and the shadows will fall behind you.’ ”

Before his speech ended, Mustapha talked about the time he wore a white T-shirt to art class in second grade and learned never to do that again, and how cool it was that one of his teachers brought her dad to a class pizza party. “I’m really going to miss this school,” he said.