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Hyattsville Elementary Principal to Retire

Principal Jeanne Washburn looks back on four decades as a teacher and advocate for Prince George's County's Public Schools.

After more than four decades in education, Principal Jeanne Washburn will be retiring at the end of the school year.  

Washburn said she is taking advantage of a county retirement incentive program designed to encourage senior employees to retire in order to save money on the school system's payroll for the 2013 budget. 

"Hopefully the money they won't be spending on me they can use elsewhere," said Washburn in an interview yesterday in her office. 

Washburn has been working for the county school system since 1987, but her involvement in local education goes back to 1969. 

That's when Washburn, who grew up in Rockville, graduated from the University of Maryland with a double major in early childhood education and special education. 

Her first job out of college saw her teaching children with orthopedic disabilities at the old Holly Park Elementary School in College Park. Today the building is the site of a mosque and Islamic school. She taught at Holly Park from 1969 through 1970. 

Then in 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War, her husband drew a low draft number. Instead of waiting to be drafted, he joined the Army and transferred to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for training and then to the Dougway Proving Grounds in Iowa for his assignment. Washburn was there by her husband's side throughout it all. She still has fond memories of Iowa's geography.

"It was a big deal for me. I had never been further west than West Virginia," said Washburn. "The land out there was like another planet."

After her husband's stint in the Army was up, the couple moved back to Maryland in 1972. By this time, they were beginning to start a family. Washburn would give birth to four boys between 1971 and 1977. 

Though she took time off to raise her kids through their first formative years, Washburn's children would end up leading her right back into education. She said that as her kids entered the school system, she again became involved with the schools. 

First, she started volunteering at her sons' schools, which led her to the presidency of the local Parent Teacher Association at University Park Elementary School. From there, she rose to the presidency of the Prince George's County Parent Teacher Association, holding the position from 1985 through 1987.

In this position, Washburn said she worked to be the voice of 20,000 students and their parents during one of the most contentious and controversial periods in the history of the county school system. At the time Prince George's County Schools were still struggling to deal with federal school integration mandates as well as concerns about HIV and AIDS in the classroom.

Washburn recalled having to speak during this time against allowing children with HIV and AIDS into the classrooms because it was how the county PTA voted on the issue. She said it was a task she carried out with personal reservations. 

"It wasn't what I personally believed. It couldn't be transmitted easily, and I had no problems with it," said Washburn. "But I had to represent the vote."

Washburn was also appointed by then-Gov. Paris Glendening to the Maryland Education Support Advisory Council, which brainstormed ways to get communities invested in their local schools, both public and private. 

She was also an 18-year member of the county's Community Advisory Council for School Desegregation. The 100-member council was designed to give feedback to the school system as it implemented untested voluntary desegregation methods like magnet schools to accomplish school integration. 

By 1987, the end of her two-year tenure as president of the county PTA, Washburn was looking to get back into the classrooms. She had already been working part-time as a substitute teacher. But she was able to land a full-time job with the county as a teacher for students with orthopedic disabilities, a throwback to her first job out of college.

In 1998 she became a mentor teacher, one of 30 in the county. Her job was to help orient, mentor and retain teaching staff at Seabrook Elementary School in Lanham. In a job where, nationally, almost half of all teachers leave the profession within five years, the task of retaining teachers is a hard one. 

"There is so much to juggle," said Washburn. "I'd have teachers in tears at the end of the day. It's stressful, it's hard."

Through those stresses, Washburn thinks she was able to make a difference in the careers of some budding educations. Washburn fondly recalled how Langley Park Elementary School Principal Amy Stout was one of her first mentees. 

After six years as a mentor teacher, Washburn came to Hyattsville Elementary School in 2004 to be the assistant principal. Three years later, the principal departed, and Washburn rose to the top spot at Hyattsville Elementary School. 

"I love Hyattsville Elementary School," said Washburn. "I knew there was a lot of skill here, so I was really proud to be picked for the principalship."

One of her first tasks as principal was to push for renovations to a rapidly deteriorating gym. She used the opportunity of the school's 90th anniversary to show county officials just how badly the gym had fallen into disrepair by hosting the event in the gym.

"Paint was falling down off the ceiling, windows were yellow and looked like they were made out of plexiglass," said Washburn. "So we got them all in this room and I said we really need to do something about this."

The thing that has changed the most about eduction over the last 40 years, said Washburn, was the rise of the standardized tests to gauge the performance of students and teachers. 

"I think the philosophy behind No Child Left Behind is outstanding," said Washburn. "But the way it has actually been put into practice, the result has been pitting neighborhood against neighborhood, school against school."

Washburn also said that many schools have a tendency to gear lessons towards test subjects. 

"It seems that there has been an emphasis on reading and math because that's what's tested," said Washburn. 

But those developments never dampened Washburn's love of teaching. 

"I love being an educator," said Washburn. "Because watching children learn, seeing that spark of understanding in them, is the most fulfilling thing."

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