New Principal Now for Heather Hills!
To: Dr. Monica Goldson, CEO, PGCPS
From: Heather Hills Elementary School Parents (Current and Former)
A TAG center school, such as Heather Hills Elementary School (“HHES”), should be a place where intellectual creativity abounds. TAG students have aptitudes that allow teachers an opportunity to teach in creative ways that inspire curiosity and a love for learning. The PGCPS TAG center program description refers to this as “enriched learning.” However, there is little, if any, enriched learning taking place at HHES because its principal – Nema Manuel – is disengaged and has not established a school culture that requires such.
It is time for new leadership at HHES and we are asking that a new principal be assigned as soon as possible. We understand the magnitude of this request and do not make it frivolously. Given the shortcomings of Ms. Manuel and the fact that they persist despite past intervention efforts throughout the years (pre-pandemic), a new principal is necessary to ensure that our students are best served.
While HHES has the advantages of a small population of exclusively TAG-identified students with parents who are prepared to engage and support, the atmosphere at the school is one of low morale. Students who entered HHES with a zest for learning are becoming disenchanted with education. As schools often take on the personality of their principals, we believe that this phenomenon is directly attributable to the attitude Ms. Manuel takes toward her job and the school community. Ms. Manuel is consistently unavailable to engage with families, which significantly and negatively affects school culture and teacher engagement.
While it is hard to quantify the effects of poor communication and an overall negative culture, some data points demonstrate how HHES is suffering. When Ms. Manuel arrived at HHES as acting principal in 2014, the school was ranked 4th in the State for the second year in a row. Immediately, in 2015, the school fell to 59th in the State. As of 2021, HHES was ranked 51st in the State. See https://www.schooldigger.com/go/MD/schools/0051001056/school.aspx (Rankings Tab). In 2014, HHES’s enrollment was 404 students. Since Ms. Manuel’s arrival, enrollment has declined all but one year of her tenure; the school now has only 349 students although it has 400 slots. See https://www.schooldigger.com/go/MD/schools/0051001056/school.aspx (Students Tab). This is especially troubling when considering that HHES is a TAG center, lottery school. Every spot should be coveted. On its 2018-2019 School Report Card issued by the Maryland State Department of Education, HHES earned just 69%. See Attachment A1. In contrast, fellow TAG center school Glenarden Woods scored 83% for the same year. See Attachment A2. HHES was even out performed by nearby Yorktown, Tulip Grove, and Whitehall, which scored 75%, 74%, and 72%, respectively, for the same period. See Attachments A3, A4, and A5. It must be emphasized that these are neighborhood schools that do not have HHES’s luxury of having 100% of their students be TAG-identified. Further, in 2019, HHES lost 8 teachers (including the entire 2nd grade staff) and its TAG coordinator. HHES has had a steady loss of teachers and staff over the years, further contributing to the continual decline in ranking and enrollment. Ms. Manuel’s poor leadership has led to low retention of both teachers and students.
These negative trends align with Ms. Manuel’s “do less” leadership style. When there is an opportunity to go the extra mile for the benefit of HHES students, Ms. Manuel deftly and routinely avoids it. When presented with such opportunities, she opts for the easiest option with no regard for how students are affected. Following are just a few recent examples:
- After finally announcing an in-person promotion ceremony a month in advance, Ms. Manuel announced to parents in the 11th hour that fifth graders would now have a “drive through” promotion.
- Despite having a full-time librarian, the students have not had access to the library for the entire school year nor have they been able to borrow books. Instead, the library has been packed with boxes and turned into a storage/utility room of sorts.
- HHES did not have a science fair this school year.
- Even after you announced, on April 6, 2022, that schools could welcome parent volunteers back into the buildings with proof of vaccination and a completed background check, as well as resume outdoor field trips and spring concerts with adherence to mask policy, Ms. Manuel failed to institute any of the above, nor any alternate activities to engage students after this trying pandemic season.
Ms. Manuel has blamed the pandemic for each of these failings. However, her fellow elementary school administrators have figured out ways to have in-person promotions, fully functioning libraries, science fairs and interactive/hands-on learning opportunities, parent volunteers in their buildings, field trips, and concerts – all during the same pandemic. The only difference is the commitment of those other principals to do more so that their students do not receive less. And most of these are not TAG schools. The shortcuts at HHES are so common that students no longer expect to do fun things, e.g., field trips, assemblies, spirit weeks, and fun academic activities. Those with siblings and friends at other PGCPS elementary schools are envious of the exciting experiences their siblings and friends are having at school. They know exactly what they are missing at HHES, and it affects them greatly. How can we expect our students to be excited about learning and be motivated to excel, when they have little excitement to look forward to during the year and there is no opportunity for them to utilize their giftedness in what is supposed to be a specialized school uniquely designed to do so?
The school community struggles to see Ms. Manuel’s vision. Yes, we are a TAG school that should be focused on academic rigor. However, our students' interest in school should expand beyond the confines of the school building and the computer screens in front of which they spend an inordinate amount of time. Our students’ must become well-rounded and productive young people and this can only occur with access to a myriad of experiences that are not purely academic. To make up for the absence of student activities and community engagement planned by the school, the PTO sponsored a Bowie Baysox event, virtual game night, go karting, several family dine outs, two book fairs, and a fifth grade barbeque. Although she was invited to attend each of the events, Ms. Manuel failed to attend any of them, nor did she attend any meetings beyond the first. She simply does not participate with students and families when given the opportunity.
Her failure to communicate or collaborate with the PTO and parents, in general, beyond the bare minimum creates an atmosphere of distrust and disdain. It fosters a culture in which some teachers choose to do the same, with no accountability, leaving parents and students to resolve issues themselves and eventually disengage. Ms. Manuel is slow to communicate, slow to act, and always takes the path of least resistance and least effort. As a visual example, attached are copies of her recent newsletter and those of the principals at Glenarden Woods and Bond Mill. See Attachments B1, B2, and B3. The differences in effort and level of information are immediately noticeable. Initially, comparing newsletters may seem trivial, but the lack of effort and information on Ms. Manuel’s part is emblematic of how she leads HHES. As a practical example, HHES held a Field “Day” on June 14, 2022 but only after being prodded by the PTO President to do so, after repeated offers to assist with End of the Year activities. In typical fashion, Ms. Manuel did not notify parents and students of the June 14th date until June 8th. The end result was a haphazard event that only allowed each grade level to do outdoor activities for one hour instead of a proper, thoughtfully planned full Field Day event. However, once again, within a few days the PTO and parents mobilized quickly to support our P.E. teacher, Mr. Brewer, by helping to organize volunteers, supplying lots of ice for a cooling station, and providing ice pop treats for each student. The same week the PTO was asked to do Class T-Shirts for the fifth graders and organize parent donations for juices, sweet treats, balloons, and decor for the last minute fifth grade pizza party. Every year the parents pour into the school and the PTO to support their students and they are met with a lack of principal, teacher and staff participation, and little to no communication. The school raised over $10,000 at the beginning of this year to be used for students (i.e. field trips, academic needs, etc.). Yet, there were no field trips, etc. The PTO struggles to successfully plan events with the school and is unable to collaborate with Ms. Manuel despite its many attempts throughout the year to assist and work together to support our school community.
Unfortunately, these issues are not new. Parents met with Ms. Manuel, then-School Board Member Raaheela Ahmed, and Instructional Director Susan Holiday in August of 2019 regarding the loss of 8 teachers and the TAG coordinator. A large part of that discussion centered on Ms. Manuel’s lack of transparency, communication, and engagement of the school community on such an important issue. Promises of better communication were made, but not kept. Parents again met with Ms. Manuel, Ms. Ahmed, and Ms. Holiday in August of 2020 to voice their frustration with Ms. Manuel’s continued poor, or nonexistent, communication and general lack of enthusiasm about her job and students. Again, promises of improvement were made, but not kept. In fact, the onset of the pandemic gave Ms. Manuel the perfect excuse not to serve our students in the manner they deserve and, if anything, things have gotten worse.
This is particularly disheartening because Ms. Manuel once knew the importance of communication and collaboration to serve our students. At the time of her appointment as acting principal of HHES in 2014, the attached Capital Gazette article reports Ms. Manuel as saying, “…her philosophy will be focusing on collaboration between parents, teachers, and students to insure everyone is on the path to success.” She stated, “[h]aving everyone working together and getting to know each other will help us make the results…” See Attachment C. Unfortunately, Ms. Manuel is falling short of those ideals and is failing our students in the process, which is simply unacceptable.
Barring current leadership, HHES has what it takes to once again be a top 5 school in the State of Maryland. The school has the backing of an excellent PGCPS TAG department, connection to the Maryland Educators of Gifted Students, a network of partner TAG schools, specialized training for teachers, willing and supportive parents, and gifted and eager learners. By all outward appearances, HHES has the tools to keep its students challenged, thinking, learning, and growing and to provide enriched, accelerated, and wholesome education. Yet the school continuously fails to reach its full potential because of poor leadership.
The HHES school community seeks a leader who is vested in the school, who will ignite the flame of the school and help it blossom – one who will galvanize our able school community, involve willing parents, support and inspire excellent teachers, and leverage available resources for the betterment of the school and the academic excellence of its students.
Again, we understand the gravity of this request. However, in the spirit of education prioritizing what is best for students over what is best for adults, it is past time for fresh leadership at HHES. Accordingly, we are requesting a commitment from you to replace HHES’s current principal and that you share with the school community your timeline for making the change.