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

In January 2016, after county schools had been closed for three days because of a blizzard, Dietz received a call from Marla Caplon, then director of the MCPS Division of Food and Nutrition Services, asking if she’d want to open the building so students could come in for lunch. MCPS had decided to offer free meals at several of its Title I schools, where many kids get breakfast and lunch. Dietz loved the idea, but said she’d only do it if the school could serve both the kids and their families—she wasn’t turning anyone away. Caplon told her that was the plan. “We know you, Nora,” she said. The school served about 300 people over a three-day period; many walked there to eat. 

Maira Garcia Thompson, Daly’s building service manager, still a keeps a photo on her office wall of the staff members who showed up at the school to help during their snow days. “Everybody said, ‘I’ll be there,’ ” she says. “Those kids, they was hungry. Some parents, they ask [to] take it home.”

When Thompson came to Daly in 2011, she knew she had work to do. This place is really calling me, she thought. A school has to feel welcoming, she says. The grass should be cut and the bushes should be trimmed. There can’t be any trash on the ground outside. The building has to have clean walls and shiny floors. “One thing we did [was] change all of the lights in the hallways, because it is very important to have the lenses and the lights clean,” says Thompson, who taught children with special needs in her native El Salvador. “We started cleaning much better [at] the school, passing all of the inspections that we should pass.” 

Dietz often hears visitors say they can’t believe Daly isn’t new. “No, she’s 28 years old,” she’ll tell them. “I’m a stickler for a good building,” says Dietz, who calls Thompson “a blessing.” Dietz remembers seeing a broken picnic table out front when she arrived at Daly. “The children deserve a comfortable learning environment—warm in the winter, cooler in the summer, and clean. I’ve been in buildings that aren’t clean. I couldn’t stand it.” 

When she took the job, Thompson didn’t know anything about Daly’s demographics, she says. She wasn’t expecting to find so many children who spoke the same language as she did. As time went on, she got to know the kids because she’d see them in the cafeteria every day. “Are you new here?” she’ll ask when she sees a face she doesn’t recognize. “Welcome aboard.”

Sometimes Thompson notices new kids crying at the lunch table, and they usually tell her the same thing: “I want to go home.” She tells them that she did, too, but everything will get better: “Don’t worry, you’re gonna learn the language—I did, and I’m older than you.” 

Other kids talk to her about the things they wish they had. “There is one student, she’s going into fifth grade now, she told me, ‘You know I live in a trailer park,’ ” Thompson says. “I said, yeah, and?” 

It’s not that she doesn’t understand, she says. She does. But she doesn’t want the kids to dwell on what they don’t have. When she was growing up, her family had a restaurant in El Salvador, and every day after school she’d put on her apron and help her mother prepare and serve food. The kids at her private school were wealthier—she was there on a scholarship—and one day some of them saw her at the restaurant and laughed. “You working in here? That’s your mother?” they asked. 

“My mother told me that day, ‘Never feel embarrassed at where you coming from, or what kind of job I am doing, because I’m not stealing—I’m working,’ ” Thompson says. 

With four kids, her mother had a choice: food or toys. Thompson never had dolls to play with, she says, and for Christmas the family had a nice dinner. At Daly, she’s had kids come to her and say, “Ms. Maira, my mom is cleaning houses.” That’s OK, she’ll tell them, that’s not a bad job. “But you know what? You need to study. You need to go to school, you need to go to university,” she’ll say. “And then, if you don’t want to do that job…you can do better.”

In a way, it’s the same thing her principal has told her, she says. When Dietz called Thompson last year and said, “I need to talk to you,” she got nervous that maybe she’d done something wrong. But Dietz wanted to talk about the future. She knew that Thompson had taken English classes for three years when she arrived in the U.S., but that it had been more than a decade since she’d worked on her language skills. She was doing great at her job, but the meeting wasn’t about that.

“Your English is fine,” she remembers Dietz telling her. “But your English has to be better. And your writing [has] to be better.” They talked about other things Thompson might do one day, like county maintenance inspections, or maybe teaching like she’d done in El Salvador. “You’re very smart,” Dietz told her. “Don’t stop.”