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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When Dietz knocked on doors at the trailer park a few years ago with a group of community leaders, she kept hearing parents say the same thing: “We need a dentist.” Now Daly works with a program that provides in-school dental care for kids. Photo by Heather Fuentes

Dietz never pictured herself in education. Her mother, Marie Heck, taught at an international school in Rome while the family lived overseas—Dietz’s father was in the Navy—and started working for MCPS soon after they moved back to the U.S. in 1962. Heck often encouraged her daughter to consider a career in the classroom, but Dietz always had the same response. “I don’t want to be a teacher,” she’d say. 

An only child, Dietz was 9 when her family settled in Rockville. She attended the old Hungerford Elementary School and Gaithersburg Junior High School (now Gaithersburg Middle School) before her parents enrolled her at D.C.’s Georgetown Visitation. She liked school, she says, and realized she had leadership qualities when peers elected her president of the senior class, but she didn’t think of herself as a great student. She’d planned to pursue a career in graphic arts.

“My second year in college I got pregnant and moved home,” Dietz says. “I thought I’d never go back to school. I was done.”  

She got married too young, she says, and the relationship didn’t last. She spent the next few years working in purchasing at Fairchild Industries and raising her son, Ryan, before marrying again. Dietz had three more children—she’d always wanted lots of kids—and was staying home to raise them when her husband lost his job and went to work as a paraeducator for MCPS. He wasn’t making much money. Then Dietz had twin girls. “No twins on either side of the family,” she says. “I was like, oh my goodness, we need more income…we were struggling.” 

Even with help from her family, Dietz knew that with six kids at home—five of them under the age of 5—she had to go back to work. Her mom, then an administrative assistant to former MCPS superintendent Paul Vance, suggested that she get a job as a paraeducator because she could work flexible hours around the kids’ child care schedules. Her first job in Montgomery County was at Beverly Farms Elementary School in Potomac, where she worked part time in the school’s program for emotionally-disturbed children. She had 10 kindergartners in her classroom, and it was her job to support the teacher, which often meant running after kids and restraining them during crises. 

A few months into her time there, the principal stopped her in the hallway. “I saw you teach today,” he said.

“Oh, I was just doing what the teacher told me to do,” she replied.

“No, no, I saw you teach today,” he said again. “You did a good job.”

The following year, Dietz transferred to Cedar Grove Elementary School in Germantown, which was closer to her home in Frederick. “I can’t pay you what you’re worth,” the principal there told her. “You have to go back to school.”

“I’ll never forget, I looked at him and I said, ‘I have six kids and they’re all young—there’s no way I’m going anywhere,’ ” Dietz says.

She didn’t know how she’d ever afford college or find the time to take classes. The job was physically draining, and life at home was chaotic. “But this principal didn’t let me go,” she says. “He kept saying: ‘Go back to school, go back to school.’ That’s the one thing I took from those two principals—they saw something in me I did not see in myself.”

When Dietz’s father, James Griffin, passed away a few years later, he left her a few thousand dollars. “Your father would have loved it if you’d gone back to school,” her mom told her. “Maybe now’s the time.” She enrolled at Frederick Community College. “My mother, God bless her, she said, ‘Start with one class because you haven’t been in school for a while—don’t overdo it,’ ” Dietz says. “I went to school for like 10 years straight.”

After earning her associate degree, Dietz started commuting to Mount St. Mary’s University in 1997, which offered a weekend program that allowed her to take classes while working and raising her kids. Her second marriage was failing, she says, and if it weren’t for that program she doesn’t know if she would have gone back to school. “Mount St. Mary’s saved my life,” she says. “I’d go back and forth, and I managed to get through.” 

Dietz received her bachelor’s degree in elementary education in 1999, at the age of 44, and took a job at Ronald McNair Elementary School in Germantown, where she spent the next seven years teaching second, third and fourth grade. She kept analyzing how the school operated, which wasn’t part of her job, and thinking about what the staff might do differently—the way a school leader would. She got her master’s degree in education administration from Bowie State University in 2005, and spent a year as assistant principal of Summit Hall Elementary School in Gaithersburg. Dietz was a principal intern at Cannon Road Elementary in Silver Spring before coming to Daly in July 2007.

“Nor, I’m just so proud of you,” she remembers her mom telling her. Heck, who’d served as principal of Clarksburg Elementary School and Mill Creek Towne Elementary School in Derwood, had retired from MCPS a few years after her daughter started teaching. “She was beaming,” Dietz says.