Closing system

Maryland school fights to keep longtime educator

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Kris Moss hasn’t forgotten the desk his son was given in grade one and used until grade three at Springhill Lake Elementary School in Greenbelt.

It was specially built larger than the other desks, providing enough space for him to spread out his things without items being pushed across the floor. A dropped pencil might not bother the other children, but it could noticeably change his son’s mood and distract him from his learning.

The desk showed Moss that the school understood his son’s needs, and the administrator who provided this desk was Chris Wichtendahl.

“Ms. Wichtendahl was always there if you had any questions or needed anything. She was always the backbone of the whole process,” Moss told me recently. school without her.”

The school year for many students in Prince George’s County, Maryland ended last week. But already, members of the Springhill Lake Elementary community are thinking about the next school year and how it might begin without Wichtendahl in the building for the first time in decades.

Staff members wrote letters to a senior official in the county’s public school system, pleading for Wichtendahl to be allowed to stay in the building where she has worked for about 30 years. A teacher familiar with the situation said Wichtendahl’s special education coordinator position was cut as part of countywide special education changes and Wichtendahl did not find out in time. to apply for an assistant manager position. The application window for deputy county managers is listed online as opening Feb. 1 and ending March 4.

“Losing Mrs. Wichtendahl (“Chris”) would be catastrophic to the staff and students of Springhill Lake Elementary,” read a letter from staff members to Monica E. Goldson, school system executive director. “In many ways, Chris is the heart and soul of our school. She has been a constant that staff and families rely on, which is especially important given the transience of our population coupled with 2 years of pandemic upheaval. It is our stability in an uncertain period of education.

The letter describes Wichtendahl as already carrying out the responsibilities of an assistant principal, as well as facilitating the “home-school connection,” working with businesses and community organizations to provide clothing and food donations throughout the year. and supporting staff and students who are part of special education programs and teaching English to speakers of other languages.

“Every day, as dedicated educators at PGCPS, we strive to meet the needs of our students amidst staffing shortages and growing demands,” the letter reads. “We now ask that you help us meet the needs of our school by allowing us to retain Chris Wichtendahl, our efficient, knowledgeable and dedicated administrator at Springhill Lake Elementary.”

The elementary school is one of many schools across the country that serve high numbers of low-income students, and during the pandemic, these schools have faced extraordinary challenges on top of the normal ones. It is the responsibility of the staff members to maintain the courses despite a national shortage of teachers, despite students experiencing loss in multiple forms, despite staff members and students regularly test positive for coronavirus.

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There’s no doubt that a lot has been asked of educators over the past few years, so when they ask for something, we need to listen. And what they’re asking Springhill Lake for is that an exception be made in the hiring process so they can retain a longtime educator who makes their position more stable during an unstable time.

Asked about Wichtendahl’s situation, Prince George’s County Public Schools spokesperson Meghan Gebreselassie said officials could not comment on a staffing issue.

Wichtendahl, through a colleague, also declined to comment for this column. It’s understandable, because it would have required her to talk about a school system she depends on for employment.

But his colleagues are not staying silent. A few spoke about his situation to the Greenbelt News Review for an article that appeared earlier this month. And then there are the letters. More than two dozen staff members signed their names to letters on his behalf. Several of these letters have been communicated to me.

“I personally spent my entire 20 year career at Springhill Lake,” it read. “I started as a student teacher and am now the primary literacy teacher. I have seen many administrators come and go throughout this time and know how much a “poor fit” can affect our morale as well as our day-to-day functions as staff and school community. I can say with certainty and clarity that Chris’ dedication to our work has not and will not be matched by another.

Danielle Todd-Jones, a special education teacher, has taught for 20 years and spent 18 at Springhill Lake Elementary School. She credits Wichtendahl with helping her get through her first year of teaching and the reason she got her master’s degree in special education.

Wichtendahl was helping students with special needs thrive in general education classrooms before it became common practice, Todd-Jones said.

“She always made sure it wasn’t ‘them and us,'” she said. “Everyone was included. They were all our children.

Moss, whose son was a Todd-Jones student years ago, said Wichtendahl made sure he didn’t feel isolated. Todd-Jones described her as doing this for many students. She said each school year usually starts with Wichtendahl providing backpacks full of school supplies to children whose families cannot afford them.

“She fights for the kids,” Todd-Jones said. “She fights for teachers.”

In her letter, she described Wichtendahl as more than a special education coordinator.

“She was and continues to be the one staff go to when dealing with change, students who need more support, or just to let off steam because some days are really tough,” reads- we. “It provides a safe space for staff, students and parents to navigate primary education.”

Todd-Jones acknowledged in his letter that there will come a day when Wichtendahl will no longer be part of the school community. But right now, she writes, the school needs her.