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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Maira Garcia Thompson, Daly’s building service manager, often talks with students at lunchtime and reminds them to work hard in school. “You have to inspire these kids,” she says. “I always tell the kids, and the [building service] workers and everybody, ‘Do the extra mile. You want something? Do the extra mile.’” Photos by Lisa Helfert

Four years ago, after the county made some changes to its curriculum, teachers at Daly started getting lots of questions from parents about what their kids were doing in math. Students were learning to “decompose a ten” and using something called a “break apart strategy” to add and subtract. “I don’t really get it,” parents would say. “What is this?” 

“We have to take parents through the building,” Dietz announced one day. “We’ve got to get them into classrooms and show them what this looks like.” 

The plan was to have parents observe some math lessons and take notes, then bring everyone together to reflect on what they’d seen. Her staff looked at her like she was crazy. “How are we going to do this?” teachers asked. 

“I don’t know, but let’s try it,” Dietz said. They decided on a date, got the word out to families and did some planning. One parent showed up.

“Well,” Dietz said. “Welcome.”

They took the woman into different classrooms, and afterwards she told Dietz that the school should do it again. “Really?” Dietz asked. “Should we?” That fall, the staff spent more time advertising the instructional tour, and 54 people came to the next one. “We’ve run them ever since, three times a year,” Dietz says. She tells parents they can bring their babies because she knows many of them can’t afford sitters. “Just as long as you come,” she’ll say.   

For Dietz and her staff, language and cultural barriers have always been daunting. One teacher used to visit the mobile home park for “form fiestas,” where she’d help parents fill out paperwork. Last year a teacher sent a student home with a note and some ChapStick after the little girl told her that her parents had taken her to the ER the night before because her lips were chapped. The family had come from Africa just a few weeks earlier and wasn’t used to the cold temperatures. The girl’s parents thought something was wrong with her.

At Back to School Night a few years ago, the kindergarten teachers gave out small gift bags that included a deck of alphabet cards. A Hispanic mom came into school later and said, “Thank you so much for this, but I just don’t know what to do with them.”

How did we miss that? Dietz thought.

Some parents used to complain to Dietz about the main office. “They wanted to have somebody in the office who spoke Spanish,” she says. “I hear you,” she’d tell them, “but it’s not as easy as you think.” It took time, but in 2014 she hired a bilingual school secretary, and that’s helped. Dietz has so many Spanish speakers in the building now that language is rarely a barrier, she says. 

Still, sometimes the phone will ring when she’s in her office late and most of the staff has gone home, and that’s when things can get tricky. Dietz can understand some Spanish, but she doesn’t speak it much. She grew up fluent in Italian, and then studied French; she still tends to mix the three languages together. “Oh, please try in English,” she’ll tell the person on the phone. “Or can you put a child on the phone?” 

About six years ago, Marcus Dixon walked into Daly and introduced himself as the new community services officer for the Germantown area. A county police officer since 2002, he told Dietz that he’d been looking into some issues at the mobile home park, and he wanted to do more with students and their families. Soon he was sitting with the kids in the cafeteria at lunchtime and speaking at school meetings. 

“When I first met with the PTA and I did something in Spanish, they were overwhelmed that a police officer would take the time to go talk to them in their language,” Dixon says. “I was like, ‘You guys are the ones that have it hard, working two or three jobs trying to make ends meet.’”  

He told the students that his mother is from El Salvador and his father is from Nicaragua. “The kids were shocked. …Oh, wait a minute, you know what it’s like to be translating for your parents. You know what it’s like to not have all the money in the world,’ ” says Dixon, who lives in Clarksburg and has four children (two sets of twins) in county schools. “I’m like, ‘Absolutely.’ And my whole theme with them was: No excuses.”

He knew parents wouldn’t feel comfortable with him right away. He was still a man in a uniform, and there was fear among the residents about Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). “I think one of the smartest things [Nora] did was to have me go in and talk to the parents [and] say, ‘Hey, that’s not Montgomery County, this is our reality,” Dixon says. Still, he’d hear about problems in the community, but there weren’t many calls for service coming into 911. “If you don’t call, then we can’t help you,” he told parents at one of Daly’s Hispanic outreach meetings in 2014. He offered to give parents his cell number, and some of them took it. “That’s huge,” he told Dietz. 

The hardest part of community policing is the buy-in from the people you’re trying to help, Dixon says, and Daly families have given him a chance because Dietz has told them that he can be trusted. “They’ll take her at her word,” he says. Last spring he received an email about two girls from the Seneca Ridge development whose families had gotten into a physical altercation. They’d reached out to Dietz before they called the police or property management. “Why’d you guys call Nora first?” Dixon asked the girls at their group mediation. “Well, that’s who you go to,” they said.