Two principals say goodbye
Downes, West Park to get new leaders
Every morning when Trish Prettyman arrives at Downes Elementary, Academic Dean Josh Cohen greets her with, “Morning, boss.” She’ll miss that – and a host of other intricacies – when she retires at the end of the month.
“I always consider us a family,” she said. “In fact, I always address my staff, whenever I email them, I always say, ‘Dear family,’ because that’s the feeling that I always wanted to instill.”
In her nearly four-decade career in the Christina School District, Prettyman has had great experiences, she said.
She recounted how, as a teacher, she took part in an exchange program that allowed her to take students to France in the late 80s, and how she traveled to study different schools around the country when the district decided to restructure its elementary programs in the 90s.
“When I look back on my whole 39 years, it really was a great run,” she said. “I have to say I was very fortunate that I had some very different experiences that probably the typical teacher doesn’t necessarily get an opportunity to do.”
Prettyman began her career in education in 1979, eventually leaving the classroom to become a writing teacher for the district, helping small groups of students in the Wilmington schools improve their proficiency.
She later ser ved as a coach who worked with teachers on professional development before she was offered the position of assistant principal at Bayard Elementary School. When Bayard became a middle school, she followed the principal to Elbert-Palmer.
In her second year there, an assistant principal position opened at Marshall Elementary, and she decided to “take the plunge” and apply.
“When I got it, it was like, ‘Oh my, I’m leaving my babies,’” she said. “And I can remember just putting my head down on the desk saying to myself, ‘Am I making the right decision?’ But, you know, I wanted to further my career.”
She worked at Marshall for three years before she felt prepared for the next step and came to Downes, where she spent seven years as principal.
“What I’m most proud of, I think, is that when I came here, there was very, very little technology in the building. And now every classroom is equipped with the appropriate technology – the smart boards, laptops, document cameras. They all have the capability to do the things that they need to do to teach,” she said.
She added that she is proud of the school’s continued academic success, as well as the Mandarin language immersion program, which began at Downes during the 2013-2014 academic year.
“The Chinese program, that was another new adventure,” she said. “It was not anything we’d ever heard of, or thought of, and then suddenly, it was presented as a possibility. Now our school is a K-5 Chinese immersion school.”
Prettyman said she decided to leave halfway through the school year so her replacement arrives when things in full swing.
“I thought also that it would be nice for someone to come in and kind of get an idea of how things go before they have to make a million decisions,” she said. “It’s already running. It’s kind of seamless.”
She noted she will have things in order for the incoming principal Anne Parks – who has started meeting staff and parents – and will be close by if she is needed.
“How can you not?” she said. “It’s my baby.”
Last June, she watched her first group of kindergarteners matriculate through their final year at Downes. She plans to come attend the annual “clap-out,” where the oldest class is cheered on as they leave Downes for the final time, to see the first class in the Chinese immersion program graduate.
“I have no doubt that I’ll keep in touch with many, many, many of my my staff over the years, because they’re very special to me,” she said. “I still keep in touch with my Marshall staff that I left seven years ago. It’s special, special relationships.”
Meanwhile, across town at West Park Place Elementary, students and teachers are adjusting to life without Principal Ledonnis Hernandez, who left last week for a job at the district office.
Hernandez, who spent eight years at West Park, attributed her success to the team around her.
She recounted the recognitions they’ve received for academic achievements – including a forthcoming recognition by Secretary of Education Susan Bunting next week – navigating the Common Core standards, and ensuring all Englishlanguage learning students are integrated into a general education classroom.
She is also proud of the school’s efforts to defeat a proposal by a committee of residents who wanted to rename the school for filmmaker Ken Burns, who attended West Park from 1959 to 1963.
“[It] was really important to us as a school community, really banding and supporting one another against the name change,” she said. “The West Park community feels very passionately about the school, [and] are really passionate about our name.”
She noted the students were a highlight of her time at West Park.
“Ultimately, they’re the reason we exist as a whole,” she continued. “And so the opportunities to really engage and get to know students are certainly the highlight of my time at West Park.”
Hernandez’s last day at West Park was on Nov. 30. On Monday, she began her new role in the district. She’ll be working as a supervisor of grants and the English-learner program.
“At the school level, I was really involved in teaching and learning. That was my primary focus. In this role, I think my focus is definitely focused on the students, but on the dollars and cents side of it, so to speak,” she said.
Last Friday, Hernandez spent her final day at West Park joining her students for lunch.
“The mixed feelings are really just around leaving a school and just leaving the school environment. All of my years of education, I’ve worked in a school building with children and adults,” she said.
She added that the new principal, Tracy Novack, started her administrative career at West Park as an administrative manager.
“She knows the culture of the school. She’s a really strong instructional leader,” Hernandez said. “So although it’s bittersweet for me to leave, and it’s kind of pulling at the heartstrings, I knew that in Tracy they would have an amazing leader.”
Looking back at her own time serving as a leader at West Park, she emphasized what a good school it is.
“Parents are involved and engaged; students are really eager to learn,” she said. “Like every other school in the U.S., we’ve had challenges, but I think one of the things that made West Park amazing is that we’re really a family. It felt like a family atmosphere. When you’re at West Park, you feel like you’re home.”
She didn’t take all the credit for the successes and warmth at West Park.
“When I look back on things that were accomplished at West Park, I don’t necessarily look at it through the lens of what I accomplished. I look at it through the lens of what we accomplished as a school community,” she said.
Trish Prettyman, principal of Downes Elementary School, will retire at the end of this month after 39 years in the district.
Outgoing West Park Place Principal Ledonnis Hernandez (left) greets students and their parents on the first day of school in 2013.