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.

share this

Families gathered in the Daly gymnasium after the fifth-grade promotion ceremony in June. Photo by Heather Fuentes

When the Daly third-graders went on a field trip to the Catoctin Wildlife Preserve & Zoo in Thurmont, Maryland, last spring, one of the mothers who was supposed to chaperone had to cancel at the last minute. A neighbor in the mobile home park offered her $10 for three hours of baby-sitting, and the woman couldn’t turn it down. She makes tortillas and tamales and sells them out of her trailer, and her husband is a day laborer. They have three kids, and the five of them share a bedroom. 

“He works in construction, but he’s third tier, so he might work two or three days and make $200 in a week,” says a Daly teacher who knows the family well. The couple left their country, where they lived with the woman’s parents, because things happened there that they have trouble talking about—things so graphic and upsetting that the teacher won’t share them publicly because she doesn’t want to break the family’s trust. 

“This is why people leave,” she says. “You need to get your kids out.”

The teacher, who does not want to be identified, visits families in the mobile home park a couple times a week, often on weekends. She wants to. She started going there her first year at Daly because she needed to meet with a parent who wouldn’t come to school. “Can I just come see you?” the teacher asked. 

She’d only been there once before, when she was student-teaching in the mid-’90s, she says, and back then the families living in the trailers were mostly white like her. She wasn’t sure what to expect. She pulled in, looked around and felt like she was in another country. This is like Mexico, she thought. The teacher, who’s bilingual and had lived in a Spanish-speaking country, kept going back. In her own Germantown community, she’d rarely see neighbors talking to each other, she says, but people at the trailer park would hang out together, cooking and playing music. “In the summertime there’s a watermelon truck that drives around and sells watermelon,” she says. “How awesome is that?”

As time went on, she started loading up her car a few times a month to drop off food and clothes for families she knew; friends often gave her donations to pass along. She and her husband helped one couple build a chicken coop. She found herself picking up mothers who didn’t have cars and bringing them back to Daly for meetings, or giving them rides to church. She started getting texts about graded assignments that come home in a child’s Wednesday folder. Families would rely on her for help translating or dealing with a behavior problem at school. 

Mustapha Saine, who graduated from Daly last year, has a special connection to Dietz’s family. After Dietz’s mother, Marie Heck, retired from MCPS, she signed up to volunteer at Daly. Heck, who passed away last year, worked closely with Mustapha when he was younger, and helped him with his reading. Photo by Heather Fuentes

“They need some hand-holding,” says the teacher, who allows one boy to eat breakfast in her classroom every morning, instead of his own, so she can check in on him. “I think I can anticipate what people are going to need and how hard it is to ask for that, and I think I have kind of an understanding for, this person is not going to know that this is about to happen. Or, this is going to scare them.” 

Soon, her students’ families were inviting her to baby showers and other celebrations. She went to the trailer park one night last January for a 10th birthday party (which was held on Three Kings Day, a widely celebrated holiday in Hispanic communities), and the girl’s parents hung a piñata between two mobile homes. It didn’t matter that it was freezing cold outside—a couple of guys parked their trucks in the middle of the street and turned on their headlights so the kids could see where they were swinging. ?There’s a side to living in that community that people don’t understand, she says, and she loves that the kids she teaches aren’t ashamed to say they live there. But that doesn’t mean it’s a safe place for children to run around. She recently told a Daly parent that it wasn’t a good idea for her two boys to be riding bikes there by themselves. She’s worried about one girl who doesn’t live in the mobile home park but has been going there to meet up with certain boys. When the teacher hears about someone in the community getting in trouble, she doesn’t ask questions the way she used to. She stopped doing that after a few people said: “You don’t want to know.” There’s been gang activity in the mobile home park, and she has kids of her own, so there are some situations she has to stay away from.

“It’s better that I’m protected from that,” the teacher says. “One family I was involved with, I got the impression I needed to let them go. That was hard, but I felt like God was saying, give yourself some space.” 

Sometimes parents just want to talk, she says. Once in a while, a mom will walk into her classroom crying, and if she doesn’t have students she’ll stop to listen. “That climate of compassion starts at the top,” says the teacher, who has worked in eight county schools. “I think Nora is brilliant at creating a community in which it is understood that every single student has value—and that’s not a universal thing. I’ve been in places where that was not understood.” 

Last winter, the teacher and a Daly colleague distributed holiday gifts to families in the mobile home park that had been donated by Adventist HealthCare through Thriving Germantown. Afterward, the teacher sent an email—without using names—describing the reactions she’d seen.  

“On Christmas Eve, in cold rain, I visited T’s house—a 2nd grade boy with no mom, whose dad is in prison and whose step-grandpa is about my age but looks 20 years older from working outside,” one note read. “T’s grandma had set up a little Christmas tree. It had clearly been salvaged, leftovers from a tree lot shutting down maybe, and decorated with paper ornaments. But there was not a single gift under that tree. T was squirmy and wriggly with delight as I left food and gifts for him and his family.”