By Jessie Newburn

Sometimes people know their path and follow it. Sometimes their path finds them and leads them on adventures and journeys more magnificent and epic than they could have imagined. For Melinda Lee, who is retiring this year after serving as principal of Laurel Elementary School (L.E.S.) for 22 years, her path found her. And what a path it has been.

retiring principal
Principal Melinda Lee at a celebration in honor of her retirement.
Courtesy of Amy Dunham.

As a young woman, she dreamed of being a stewardess, so she went to travel school. When she realized she needed a college degree, she left school and returned to her small hometown in Bloomsburg, Pa.. Through the grapevine of small-town conversations, her former third grade teacher, who owned a preschool and daycare, heard of Lee’s crushed dreams and offered her a job.

A month into the job, Lee knew that she wanted to be a teacher, so she enrolled in college in the late 1980s. Her first teaching job after graduation was in a small, rural town on the Eastern Shore in Maryland. Soon, she was running the science program at Tayac Academy Elementary School in Fort Washington, Md., and was stepping into additional leadership roles whenever she could. Seven years later, she became an assistant principal at Overlook Elementary School, in Linthicum Heights, and then became principal at L.E.S. That was 22 rich, change-filled, challenge-filled, happy-memory-filled years ago.

“The job never became stagnant,” Lee said. “Changing demographics and a big uptick in our ESOL population was one of the core changes we had to work with.”

Lee noted that L.E.S.’s  student population was about 50% African American and 50% white when she became principal. Now, about 70% of the school’s students are Latino, about 20% are Black and about 5% are white. Forty-seven percent of the school’s students are in the English as a Second Language program. 

The changing demographics included many parents who neither spoke English nor had understanding of how American schools worked, which presented challenges, but challenges are part of what Lee thrives on. She and her staff were able to get Title 1 classification for the school, which provided additional funding and enabled the school to reduce class sizes. Staff were able to personalize attention for students, particularly those lacking English-language skills, some of whom were two or three grade levels behind their peers. 

While the pandemic caused upheaval for schools nationwide, the low economic status of many LES families, many of whom lacked adequate technical skills and access to digital technology at home created additional challenges for Lee and her team.

They worked with Prince George’s County to provide hotspots for families who didn’t have internet access and provided evening workshops to help families get up to speed with Google Classrooms. Staff even visited families at home to ensure their devices were  set up properly.

Lee, with her orientation to partnerships and community engagement, developed relationships throughout Laurel, including with businesses, nonprofit organizations, the police department, city councilmembers and more. 

During the pandemic’s early months, the school partnered with the Washington Food Bank to distribute food boxes. “Police officers, city council members and even the mayor came out and helped us prepare the produce bags,” Lee said. The school has continued weekly food distributions to further support at-risk families.

“We know when students can read by second grade their chances of graduating from high school are significantly higher,” Lee said.“Families need to be healthy and able to support children in order for students to be successful.”

Naturally effervescent with a talk-to-anyone-anytime personality, Lee has created an open-door atmosphere for staff, students and parents. “Parents talk to me about all sorts of concerns,” she said. “There are families where we’ve taught all their children … and then gone on to teach their children’s children. When possible, we really get to know not just the students, but their families, as well.” 

Lee’s passion for science and the environment has grown over the years. She was able to get her school accredited as a Green School  by the Maryland Green Schools Award Program for L.E.S.’ environmental literacy curriculum program, and she  is on the county’s steering committee for environmental education. 

“Melinda is incredibly supportive of staff creativity,” said Jennifer Yerlam, a fifth grade team leader at L.E.S. “I’ve worked with Melinda since her first days at this school. She is everything you could ask for in a principal and more. Her infectious laugh, her support of teacher creativity and her love of the students will be missed.”

Lee isn’t fading into the background as she retires. She’ll be working with preschoolers enrolled in the early education program at  St. Matthews Methodist Church in Bowie.

“After a full career in helping ready students for middle school, I’ll now have an opportunity to help students get ready for elementary school,” Lee said. “And I’m really looking forward to being number two in the hierarchy and not having to make all the decisions.”