JoAnn “Jody” Leleck, an educator who worked in Montgomery County public schools for more than 25 years and received national attention when she helped turn around the once-troubled Broad Acres Elementary School in Silver Spring, died Dec. 11 at her home in Olney. She was 62.
She had colon cancer, said her husband, Paul Leleck.
Mrs. Leleck joined Montgomery County schools in 1984 as a teacher of English for speakers of other languages. She ascended the ranks to assistant principal and then, in 1999, principal of Broad Acres Elementary.
It was a critical juncture for the school. Broad Acres had — and still has today — the highest poverty rate of any school in the district, according to Brian K. Edwards, the school system’s chief of staff. The vast majority of its students are not native English speakers, and many have suffered deep trauma. One student during Mrs. Leleck’s tenure, from Nigeria, had a bullet scar on her forehead.
The school was often described in news accounts as the lowest-performing school in the district. Test scores were so low that the state threatened to assume control of Broad Acres — an outcome that would have stained the reputation of what was widely considered a top-tier school system.
On hiring her as principal, former schools superintendent Jerry D. Weast said in an interview, he told her that if she proved unable to do the job he “had no problems replacing her.” She understood that if she failed as a first-time principal, the consequences for her career could be dire. She nonetheless accepted the challenge.
“She had all the qualities I was looking for,” Weast said in an interview. “Patient, bilingual, intelligent and an iron will to succeed and help children succeed.”
Along with Weast, Mrs. Leleck launched a series of sweeping and highly scrutinized reforms. Their efforts figured in the 2009 book “Leading for Equity: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Montgomery County Public Schools.”
Mrs. Leleck asked teachers to commit to staying at the school for three years to increase stability for students. She negotiated with the teachers union to increase the number of hours in the workweek for added pay.
About a third of the teachers left, The Washington Post reported, and Mrs. Leleck hired a crop of new teachers, many of them veteran educators. One of them, Kimberly Oliver, was named the 2006 National Teacher of the Year, an initiative of the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Mrs. Leleck also restructured the school day to increase instruction time. Once, Weast recalled, he found her “on her hands and knees” arranging and rearranging dozens of notecards with the names of Broad Acres students. Every few weeks, she reorganized the students based on their progress so that they could receive targeted instruction.
From 2000 to 2004, when Mrs. Leleck was promoted to the school system’s central office, the passing rate on state reading tests in third grade increased from 13 percent to 75 percent, Edwards said. He described those scores as “representative” of improvements schoolwide.
“You could walk in that school after Jody Leleck had it for just a few years,” Weast said, “and you couldn’t tell that school from being in a wealthy neighborhood in Potomac. It was doing the same level of instruction.”
JoAnn Assante was born June 14, 1950, in Rockville Centre, N.Y. She received a bachelor’s degree in education and French in 1972 and a master’s degree in ESOL education in 1983, both from the University of Maryland. She received a master’s degree in education administration from Johns Hopkins University in 1998.
Mrs. Leleck began her career in Prince George’s County schools as a French, English, civics and ESOL teacher. She taught ESOL at Burning Tree and Highland elementary schools in Montgomery County before moving into the school administration.
After being principal, she held roles including associate superintendent of curriculum, a position in which she launched a revamping of the elementary instructional program. She retired in 2011 as chief academic officer.
Survivors include her husband of 40 years, Paul Leleck of Olney; two children, Christy Leleck of New York City and Andrew Leleck of Chevy Chase; her mother, Marie Assante Sammons of East Meadow, N.Y.; a sister; two brothers; a stepsister; a stepbrother; and three grandchildren.
Mrs. Leleck was known among colleagues as “7-Eleven” — a reference to her daily work hours, and her dedication to her students.