Projects and Passion: 4 D.C. Principals Usher in the School Year

The waning days of summer have an intriguing ability to unearth youthful memories. This time of year reminds many of their childhoods, of long sun-soaked days and back-to-school shopping. It’s a time when slates are scrubbed clean and a feeling of anticipation (new friends, new challenges, new opportunities) floats buoyantly in the air.

As school begins this month, four local principals shared their enthusiasm for what’s ahead in their respective schools, from new playgrounds and outdoor classrooms to growing enrollment numbers.

Patricia Pride, principal at Hardy Middle School on 35th Street, is excited to see the Hawks return to the nest.

“There are great opportunities in store for our Hardy Middle School students,” said Pride. She added that the support the school is receiving from its feeder schools is stronger every year. Following boundary changes, John Eaton Elementary will become a full feeder school for Hardy.

One of the school’s newest additions is a homeroom class period for every student on Wednesdays, an initiative meant to foster students’ emotional growth.

“Homeroom will be a place where students can connect with teachers, where they won’t owe a grade,” said Pride, adding that it’s also a safe place to discuss issues that may be worrying them. Additionally, the school is breaking ground on an outdoor classroom in September, and teachers will be implementing new District-led “Cornerstone Shared Experience” assignments.

Meanwhile, at Hyde-Addison Elementary School, planning is underway for a new gym, media center/library and cafeteria, plus new music and classroom space. Excavation is expected to begin between late spring and the end of the school year. The project comes at a good time given the school’s growth, particularly in its fifth-grade numbers. While the school has two fifth-grade classes, enrollment continues to increase as families prepare their students for the middle-school world ahead. The 2015-2016 school year will also see the introduction of the school’s first Pre-K 3 class.

“We’re excited to have 16 three-year-olds this year,” said Principal Elizabeth Namba, who’s going into her second year as principal of Hyde-Addison. Originally from Connecticut, Namba seeks to nurture a supportive, yet rigorous and caring environment. Furthermore, she diligently works with the school’s staff to ensure that students have the best possible academic experience while meeting their social and emotional potential.

At Stoddert Elementary School, Principal Donald Bryant was upbeat about the campus’s playground renovation. The project, to be completed by late August, includes an outdoor classroom, a new climbing structure, a jogging track and a hard walking surface, not to mention a new artificial-turf surface.

Stoddert’s hallways will brighten this year after some new faces are welcomed to the leadership team, including Ibis Villegas, assistant principal, and Clinton Turner, the new resident principal and a Mary Jane Patterson Fellow.

As at Hyde-Addison, fifth-grade enrollment at Stoddert has increased, actually doubling since the past year. This rise has led to the addition of another classroom.

While some schools are just finishing additions and renovations, others have quite a bit longer to go. The Duke Ellington School of the Arts is undergoing a major renovation expected to last until spring 2017. In the meantime, students are being bussed between two different buildings for their academic and arts curricula, considered only a slight inconvenience given what’s to come.

Desepe de Vargas, head of school at Duke Ellington, believes that the building and the tools therein are of ultimate importance to the overall experience at a school of the arts.

“The building will be a learning tool as much as our textbooks are,” she said, adding that a state-of-the-art facility with the equipment to train aspiring artists is fundamental to the school’s mission. “The challenge we have now is making magic with very little.”

The renovation will provide new band studios, visual arts rooms, computer labs for graphic and media design and specialty spaces, such as a black box theater. The theater, said de Vargas, will give students enormous flexibility to transform the performance space, telling the story in creative ways.

After the renovation and campus expansion is completed, enrollment at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts will rise from approximately 530 to 630 students — that’s 100 more kids to grow and learn at this inspiring institution.

De Vargas, who is from Liberia, has good reason to be proud of her student body, which is consistently one of the highest performing in the public high school sector.

“Our graduation rate is 98 percent,” she said. “We continue to be proud of that.” Just last year, the students at Duke Ellington were awarded $3.5 million in scholarships, with one young dance major named a Gates Millennium Scholar by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Stories like these inspire young minds to dream big and follow their passion. And there could not be a better time than right now, at the advent of a new school year, to do so.

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