WASHINGTON – Two Maryland grade school principals who won a national leadership award Friday said good communication between teachers, parents and principals is the secret to a successful school.
Vienna Elementary School Principal Frederic Hildenbrand and Michael Castagnola, principal of Templeton Elementary in Riverdale, were in Washington Friday to receive the Terrel Bell Award for School Leadership.
The U.S. Department of Education award honors the best leaders of the best schools, those that have been named National Blue Ribbon Schools. Six principals were honored Friday.
Both Maryland principals attribute most of their success to high-quality teachers.
“I have outstanding teachers. I’ve had many teachers wanting to transfer (to Templeton),” said Castagnola.
Hildenbrand said his teachers “appreciate that I allow them to be innovative in their teaching strategies. They know I’ll support them in whatever they try.”
Though the two schools are vastly different — Templeton is a large, urban school and Vienna is a small, rural school — both principals have created ways to make the most of their resources and location.
Templeton has programs to help the many international refugees who are among the 824 students at the school, said Castagnola. Most students are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch, but he said supportive parents and effective programs overcame this problem.
“Despite the rate of impoverished kids, we’ve beaten the odds by having five years of growth and achievement,” said Castagnola.
He responded to the influx of refugees by bringing the English for Speakers of Other Languages program to the school. Four teachers provide academic support for students unable to speak English.
He said that communication with foreign-speaking parents can be difficult, but students learn English quickly and can serve as interpreters. “We learn from our kids and at the same time they learn from us,” said Castagnola.
Vienna, with 210 students, drew on its rural setting by creating a wetland that houses various birds, animals and plants on school grounds, said Hilenbrand. The principal said he likes to think of himself as “a guide on the side,” who can help teachers decide on programs, but is not too authoritarian.
“We collaboratively decide what’s going to be good for the kids. I don’t have any expertise that they don’t have,” said Hildenbrand of his staff.
He said community support has played a major role in making Vienna successful. Many community members volunteered their time to help create the school’s wetlands, which houses an osprey’s nest.
Besides the wetlands, students write and publish their own school newspaper.
Both schools offer specialized programs for students with special needs.
Vienna, for example, brings together teachers from various subjects to help students with reading instruction each day. Small-group instruction programs help Templeton students with reading problems, and a separate program brings students from the University of Maryland at College Park to tutor children who have difficulty in reading, writing and math.