BY ROSANNA LANDIS WEAVER — No matter how often we celebrate the countdown on December 31, for many of us the start of the school year is embedded deep in our souls as the time of new beginnings and awkward transitions. This September brings a number of changes in Hyattsville, including two new schools and new programs at existing schools that offer educational opportunities for students from toddlers to teens.
On September 11, the ribbon was cut and the celebratory potluck held at Chelsea School’s new location on Belcrest Road, but the 70 students in grades 5 through 12 with “language-based learning differences” had already begun school on September 3.
The school’s new home — on the top floor of the building that houses LA Fitness — represents a big change from the five-acre property in Silver Spring that had been its home for 24 years. (The campus formerly housed the Academy of the Holy Names, an all-girl Catholic high school.)
Director Kate Fedelen said the move was in part because the school was “putting too much money into maintenance. We wanted to put our money into staff and programs.”
When looking for a new school, she said, “Hyattsville was an attractive place for us for many reasons.” Among those reasons: a school population that is mostly from Prince George’s County; a location right across from a Metro station; and the potential for partnerships with nearby University of Maryland and Prince George’s County Community College.
The school was started more than 30 years ago by parents looking for educational options for their dyslexic children. Chelsea’s mission is to educate “bright and promising students” with various language-based difficulties, who “were not able to succeed in the traditional system, but were able to be successful” in Chelsea’s system, with its small classrooms and particular focus. One sign of success: the school’s graduation rate has been near 100 percent, despite the challenges its students face.
Chelsea hopes to grow. There is space for up to 90 students in the property for which it has signed a 10-year lease.
“Ultimately we hope to make a permanent home in Prince George’s County,” said Fedelen.
College Park Academy
New beginnings can be especially challenging when new technology is involved. The College Park Academy, a blended learning school that includes an emphasis on online learning, had some challenges its first week. The public charter school, with 300 students divided between 6th and 7th grade, depends on the Prince George’s County Public School system for its internet access. There were some glitches in the early days.
Executive Director Marcy Cathey notes that “for a traditional school it [bandwidth] would have been fine,” but not for one with 350 devices on the network.
The initial difficulties were quickly resolved. In the meantime, “The teachers stepped up and adapted,” says Cathey, “as teachers always do.” She adds that “we have a lot of smart people working together to solve problems.”
Parent Abdul Quamar notes, “I expected some issues because it’s a new school,” and feels like the school is on track. There are 52 Hyattsville residents at the school, making up about 17 percent of the student body, and Quamar’s son Adil is among them.
“He can actually work at his own pace.” said Quamar. “That’s why he likes it.”
Each week students receive assignments, and can plan how to address work and move ahead when they understand a topic. “The benefit of the blended-earning environment,” says Cathey, “is that it includes individualized instruction and teachers facilitating student learning.”
Executive director Cathey has previously worked at Holy Trinity Episcopal, and the Medeira School, but says she was impressed with the amount of volunteering parents did over the summer to prepare for the school opening , “I have some of the greatest parents here I’ve ever had.”
The program is expected to add a grade each year, and a partnership with University of Maryland means that the students have the potential to graduate high school with 25 college course credits from the University of Maryland. While currently located on Adelphi Road in Hyattsville, it also seeks a permanent home.
St. Jerome Academy adds Montessori Preschool
For the younger set, St. Jerome Academy launched a preschool Montessori program with a toddler room and two primary classrooms, which are fully enrolled with more than 50 students. Elizabeth Roberts, a parent with children in the program, credits the hard work and planning done over the past two years by “committed parents and a motivated parish.”
She notes that St. Jerome Academy went through a transition a few years ago to become a Classical school, but wanted to offer something for younger children as well. “Montessori was the best foundation we could find for the Classical academy,” notes Roberts, because of its focus on encouraging children on a self-driven search for answers, as well as a training on attention to detail.
The toddler class, open to children at 18 months, is for two hours a day twice a week; the primary room begins for children between 30 to 36 months and operates daily, either in a half-day or a full-day program. The school also offers an aftercare program. As is traditional for a Montessori school, children do hand-on works from washing dishes and scrubbing laundry to building a binomial cube.
Roberts notes that, “As a parish school, we began with the catechesis (religious instruction)” before launching the full Montessori academic program. The school is using the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a sensory-rich, Montessori approach to religious education.
Students in the primary classes will matriculate into the Classical school in first grade, which is becoming a bridge year between the Montessori and Classical models, combining elements of both methods as well as students from both the Montessori program and the Classical kindergarten.
Northwestern High School launches Visual and Performing Arts Academy
This fall was also the formal launch of the Jim Henson Visual and Performing Arts Academy at Northwestern High School. For now, it’s an in-boundary program that requires an audition. Additional faculty were added to teach courses in each of the programs: instrumental music (either band or orchestra), voice, drama, visual arts, dance and TV production.
One benefit: Students receive a special “zero period” of specialized instruction from 8:15 to 9:15, before the regular hours of school. As might be expected, some adolescents were not eager to give up an hour of sleep, even for the study of something they loved.
Director Leona Lowery Fitzhugh notes that “getting that hour in was rough at first,” but that that now, “it is smoothing out more.”
This expansion of the school’s program comes on the heels of the choir’s successful trip to South Africa. There’s another music trip on the horizon: the Shanghai Tourist Festival has invited the band to perform in China in September 2014.
In other news …
The most significant changes at Hyattsville Middle School this year resulted from decisions made at the county level. The school, which had been underutilized, added 113 6th graders, primarily students who would otherwise have attended Hyattsville Elementary. Also, as part of a countywide change, sports will return to the middle school. Baseball and softball in the fall, will be followed by basketball and cheerleading in the winter, and soccer in the spring. baseball for boys and cheerleading for girls. According to athletic director Joshua Uncapher, approximately 100 students had signed up by the third week of school.
As the 6th grade has moved on to Hyattsville Middle, pre-K has returned to Hyattsville Elementary School. For the first year, HES is offering child care before and after school to accommodate parents’ work schedules. PTA President Bart Lawrence reports that more than 40 families registered, immediately filling the program. In addition, the PTA has expanded after-school enrichment programs, building on the success of the ArtWorks program which will be offered again this year. New additions will include a Mad Science, introducing hands on science and laboratory work, and Creative Kids, a literature-based drama program.