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Reaching for the skies … and bringing everyone along with her

Here is the link to the Laurel Independent printed feature story I wrote about Melinda Lee, principal of Laurel Elementary School. The story is page 8. And here is the full and longer story I wrote, below.


Reaching for the skies … and bringing everyone along with her

Melinda Lee Retires after 22 Years as Laurel Elementary’s Principal 

By Jessie Newburn

Sometimes people know their path and follow it. Sometimes their path finds them and leads them on adventures and journeys more magnificent and epic than they could have imagined. For Mrs. Melinda Lee, principal of Laurel Elementary School (L.E.S.) for the last 22 years, who is also retiring at the close of this school year, her path found her. And what a path it has been!

As a young woman from a small town, she dreamed of being a stewardess, so off she went to travel school to follow that path, but when she discovered a college degree (which she didn’t have) was required for the job, she left the school and returned home to her town of some 15,000 people. Through the grapevine of small-town conversations, her third-grade teacher heard of her crushed dreams and offered her a job at the preschool/daycare center she owned.

A month into the job, Lee knew, unequivocally, she wanted to be a teacher, and soon after was enrolled in college. After graduating, she was off to her first teaching job in a very small and rural town of 3,000 people, but she longed to live in a more populated area. 

Soon enough she was running the science program at Tayac Academy Elementary School, stepping into additional leadership roles where she could; and seven years later she became an assistant principal, and then principal at Laurel Elementary School. That was 22 rich, change-filled, challenge-filled, happy-memory-filled years ago.

“The job never became stagnant,” Lee said, “Changing demographics and a big uptick in our ESOL population was one of the core changes we had to work with.”

“When I started out, our school’s population was about 50 percent African-american and 50 percent white. Now, about 70 percent of our students are Latino, about 20 percent are Black and about five percent are white.” Forty-seven percent of the school’s students are in the ESOL, English as a Second Language, program. 

The changing demographics and high immigrant population–including many parents who neither spoke English nor had understanding of how American schools worked–was a challenge in and of itself. But challenges are part of what Lee thrives on. She and her staff were able to get Title 1 classification for the school, and the additional funding and permission to reduce class size allowed more personalized attention for students, particularly those with no English-language skills, and sometimes being two, even three, grade levels behind their peers. 

While the pandemic caused havoc for teachers, principals, students and parents nationwide, the high immigrant population, low economic status of many of the families and lack of modern-day technical skills (and technology at home) created quite a challenge for Lee and her team.

Many families didn’t have internet access, so they worked with Prince George’s County to provide hotspots for families. Many kids and their families needed help navigating Google Classrooms, so Lee and her staff created evening workshops and hired a parent engagement assistant. Sometimes staff members visited families at home to make sure all the technology was set up properly.

Ever and always dedicated to her students’ success, Lee, with her orientation to partnerships and community engagement, had developed relationships all throughout Laurel with everyone from local businesses, various nonprofit organizations, the local police, city council and more. 

Every Wednesday during the pandemic’s early months, 500 boxes of food from the Washington Food Bank were distributed in under two hours with the help of many volunteers. “Police officers, city council members and even the mayor came out and helped us prepare the produce bags,” Lee adds. 

Food distribution continues to be one of the many ways Lee and her team support at-risk families. Every Thursday during the school year, as part of their Brighter Bites program, about 120 students and their families receive fresh produce to supplant their grocery budgets.

“We know when students can read by second grade their chances of graduating from high school are significantly higher,” Lee says. So they do all they can to support both the children and their families. “Families need to be healthy and able to support children in order for students to be successful,” she adds.

Naturally effervescent with a talk-to-anyone-anytime personality, Lee has created an open-door atmosphere for staff, as well as students and their parents. “Parents talk to me about all sorts of concerns. I’ve even helped a bit with some marital counseling on occasion,” she says. “There are families where we’ve taught all their children … and then gone on to teach their children’s children. When possible, we really get to know not just the student, but their families, as well.” 

An enduring legacy she has created, indeed. One of the things Lee has enjoyed about her role as principal is hearing from students who come back to visit the school and tell her how special and important their education at Laurel Elementary School was for them. Of the many accomplishments she’s proud of, hiring three former students as teachers is one of them.

Lee’s early-career passion for science and the environment has only grown over the years. She was able to get her school accredited as a Green School and is personally on the steering committee for environmental education at P.G. County schools. Environmental literacy is part and parcel of many L.E.S. curriculum programs, and they’ve won many awards for their work. Among their accomplishments: they compost breakfast and lunch waste, they have a dedicated recycling team, and they’ve built an outdoor classroom through a grant.

Getting kids outside playing and learning, and in nature, is important to Lee. Another significant accomplishment during her tenure was getting over 150 volunteers to help build two Kaboom playgrounds in a single day. 

During the pandemic–when schools were not allowed to have overnight field trips–Jennifer Yerlam, the fifth grade team leader was concerned students would be missing out on the educational experience of going to Camp Schmidt, an outdoor education center. She mentioned her concern to Lee and asked if they could put together a similar day-long (but not overnight) learning experience for the fifth graders. Lee, in testament to her “anything for the students” philosophy, said “yes,” and immediately started contacting people in her network.

“Melinda is incredibly supportive of staff creativity,” Yerlam says. “She knew who to talk to, what local resources we could tap into, for example, to do stream ecology tests, and how to make this make-shift event happen. She even volunteered to lead the nature walk.” The nature walk lesson plan included finding deer droppings to estimate how many deer were in the area. That year, for a number of reasons, the deer weren’t as plentiful in the area, and so it was decided to use Raisinets candies in lieu of deer scat.

As Lee led students along the trail and the Raisinets were spotted, she surprised–and temporarily grossed out–the students by scooping up a handful of them and popping them in her mouth. “The students squealed, then laughed and, most likely, loved her all the more,” Yerlam says. “I’ve worked with Melinda since her first days at this school. She is everything you could ask for in a principal and more. Her infectious laugh, her support of teacher creativity and her love of the students will be missed.”

But Lee isn’t fading into the background as she retires at the end of this year. (She wasn’t even planning on retiring but an opportunity came up that, well, seemed right on her path.) She’ll be working with children ages two to four at the St. Matthews Methodist Church’s Early Education Center in Bowie.

“After a full career in helping ready students for middle school, I’ll now have an opportunity to help students get ready for elementary school,” Lee says. “And I’m really looking forward to being number two in the hierarchy and not having to make all the decisions.” 

The center is also a mile from her home and right next to her 16-year-old daughter’s high school. Supporting her daughter in her final years in high school is also a priority for Lee, as is family time. “I love to cook and every night–regardless of the day I’ve had at school–I cook dinner for my family. I find it quite peaceful and relaxing.” 

While she is looking forward to her next adventure and the path ahead, she’s going to miss the relationships with families and with colleagues. In addition to having more time with her daughter, she’s also looking forward to having more time for her hobbies. And while she never flew in the skies as a flight attendant, she looks forward to having more time to travel, going to the beach, gardening, snow skiing and keeping in touch with friends.



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