Just after dawn on a Thursday in mid-September, the halls of Hyattsville Elementary School are quiet as cafeteria workers and teachers trickle in, nursing coffee cups. Quiet, that is, except in the classroom of Michael Wehinger, the new music teacher, where a small chorus of fourth grade Lions is roaring, “Don’t worry, ‘bout a thing, cuz every little thing gonna be alright…” The students move on to Winter Wonderland and Jingle Bell Rock, already rehearsing the Christmas concert.

Early morning rehearsals begin days filled with more music and art instruction than in prior years.  The school has a new Peabody-trained tuba player, Samuel Ambrose, who is teaching students instruments for orchestra and band. A full-time art instructor joined the staff, so all students have an art class each week. And the local art education nonprofit, ArtWorks Now, is in its second year running an after-school program at Hyattsville Elementary.

Hyattsville has had a public elementary school since the late 1800s, and on the present site since the late 1920s. The school was a white school in a segregated system at its founding. In 1973, by court order, black students from an all black school in Capitol Hill were bussed in. By the late 90s, when the court found that Prince George’s County schools had successfully integrated, the HES student body was 55 percent black.

Today, the school remains diverse, with Latino, black, and white students making up 44 percent, 35 percent, and 17 percent of the student body respectively.  About a quarter of the school’s students have limited proficiency in English, and about three quarters qualify for free lunch because of low income.

The current principal, Julia Burton, joined the staff two years ago at a time when the school was facing new challenges.  In 2012, after a small drop in enrollments for free lunch, the school lost Title I funding for intervention specialists trained to help children with reading and math. This year the school regained Title I funding for one specialist to provide targeted assistance.  After two more years, the district will determine whether to reestablish school-wide services.

Also during Ms. Burton’s tenure, the curriculum at Hyattsville Elementary changed to incorporate the Maryland College and Career Ready Standards (Common Core).  Ms. Burton is enthusiastic about the new curriculum because “it allows students to spend more time with topics, and gain deeper understanding.”

Schools statewide saw a dip in scores that educators attribute to a mismatch between the new curriculums and the old assessment tools.  Ms. Burton is not satisfied with the school’s performance on assessment tests.  This year, for the first time, the test administered will match the new curriculum.  Ms. Burton is eager to see the results.

Ms. Burton is proud of the focus on nature and the local environment that the science curriculum has gained during her tenure.  Through a new partnership with the Anacostia Watershed Society facilitated by a neighborhood parent, students have began making field trips to the river in Bladensburg in order to learn about birds and animals that live in the Anacostia watershed, and about the problem of urban runoff.  Students are now growing native wetland plants from seed in their classrooms, and planting them along the river to help provide habitat and filtration.

Most of all, Ms. Burton says she loves that Hyattsville Elementary is “a real community school; so many people from the neighborhood come together to make the school a good place for kids to be.”

Outgoing PTA president and current Ward 1 Councilman Bart Lawrence agrees.  “Since my daughters have been at HES, nearly every time there’s been a need for support in the school, whether it’s budget cuts, health-related issues, or last-minute enrollments, parents, grandparents, and community members have leant their support.”

During the school year, between 30 and 45 regular volunteers, including parents and University of Maryland students, read with children, volunteer in the library, do grounds work, or spend time mentoring children on their lunch hour. This summer, parent-volunteer Christine Williams painted the walls of the school’s entryway in a colorful landscape full of whimsical, Seuss-inspired trees, fish, and birds.