By Kit Slack
This fall, Hyattsville Elementary School (HES) is operating virtually, under the leadership of a new principal, Richard McKee Jr. McKee has a prior career in computer networking. Now he is focusing on building networks of a more personal kind: “strong teams and relationships built on trust, reciprocal trust” among staff.
When asked why he began a career in education, McKee said that when he worked in computer networking “there wasn’t a lot of interaction … I didn’t feel like I was making a difference.”
McKee earned his teaching credentials through the county’s Resident Teacher Program for professionals with other careers. He started out at Templeton Elementary in Riverdale in 2003 and taught there for nine years, including three years as a technology resource teacher.
He preferred working as a classroom teacher. “I really love fourth grade,” he said.
McKee sounded genuinely excited about turning the challenges of virtual school into opportunities, saying “no one has ever done this before, and it is our chance to innovate.” He noted that students and staff are learning about and using education technology, and says that they are achieving “enormous growth” in this area.
PTA Vice President Debbie Van Camp agrees. “At first I worried that older teachers would struggle so much … that their strengths would get lost.” Her son Will, a first-grader, is in the class of a 25-year veteran teacher, Tracy Clark-Peele, who is known for her warmth and positivity, according to Van Camp.
“It is going much better than I anticipated,” said Van Camp. Through efforts Van Camp finds “really admirable,” Peele “was able to make the shift,” so that Will is “still getting the experience of her as a teacher.”
While Van Camp says she does not expect her first-grader to be independent from his parents in virtual schooling, she admires Peele’s efforts to connect with Will and take charge of his education through the online classroom, just as she would in a physical one.
The school has implemented 10 minutes of “social and emotional learning” at the beginning of each day she said, which in Will’s class means that each child greets the teacher and one other child before lessons begin.
Other parents echo Van Camp’s support for the new principal’s communication strategy and the teachers’ hard work, but say that they struggle to offer their children the help they need while they, themselves, are working.
“My problem is … I am constantly interrupted,” said Sarah Eisen, caught for an interview on Bluetooth in her car on her way from picking up dinner to picking up a child. Her fourth-grader, she said, “doesn’t ask his teachers questions and then … doesn’t know what to do.”
Kristen Wares, co-PTA vice president and mother of first-grader Tess, said, “It’s amazing how quickly she’s caught onto the technology” required to do independent schoolwork.
But Wares noted downsides, too, saying, “It’s not natural for Tess to not have anybody to talk to. No one to show the drawing she is working on.” She thinks her family “underestimated that we were going to have to be classmate and peer; it surprised all of us.”
“Can I tell you a funny story?” asked Eisen. She said one day her child’s teacher lost connection with a Zoom classroom. By default, a student became the host. “The student figured out how to unmute everybody, and they were all super happy to be able to talk to each other!”
Eisen’s son declined to be interviewed, and Wares’ daughter Tess and Van Camp’s son Will did not have much to say. “I wish it were shorter,” said Will, though he admitted that he liked singing in music class. Tess was stumped when asked to mention something she enjoyed about school.
Melanie and Dana Maldonado, sisters ages 11 and 7, were more communicative — in Spanish. They immigrated from Guatemala in 2019 and are in their second year at HES.
“It feels really very different from last year,” said Melanie. “I am having trouble with the reading. … Other people talk in class, but I don’t.”
The sisters are going to school online this year using devices the county provided. Poor Wi-Fi signals sometimes make it difficult to attend.
Asked what they like about school, Dana said, “I like to color, and I like to play in that little park next to the school.” Melanie’s favorite is music class. “I like learning about the instruments, for instance, how many strings a violin has.”
Their uncle Ramon, who did not volunteer his last name, said, “They are happy to have the opportunity to succeed at learning another language. Yes, they are learning!”
McKee, whose overall vision, he says, is of “social justice through equity and equality in education,” said he wants HES to be not just a place where kids come to “have a great day, a good time at recess” but a place that is going to “challenge kids, a place where they come to excel and succeed in life.” He has a 5-year plan, and said that in time “we’ll see rises in test scores and increases in enrollment.”
McKee stressed the importance, from a social justice perspective, of a strong elementary school foundation for all children. “I really believe in a family atmosphere,” he said. “Statistics show that we spend more time at school than with our own family.”
Well, maybe next year.