Obama principal to create school environment

By Zoe Tillman
The Gazette
Thursday, August 12, 2010

Standing in a classroom awash in natural light from large windows, Pearl Harmon, principal of Barack Obama Elementary School, rattles off features of the new Upper Marlboro school's environmentally sustainable design.

Low-flow sinks and toilets. Desks built using recycled materials. More than 144 geothermal pumps that use recycled water to keep the building at a temperature of 72 degrees.

But Harmon, 38, is quick to add that despite the bells and whistles of the $18 million building, her attention is focused on academic performance.

"It's all about being transparent and honest about the student population entrusted to us . . . not placing blame, not looking for excuses," she said.

Obama Elementary, which was built next door to Dr. Henry A. Wise Jr. High School, will welcome about 725 students; the school has the capacity to hold 792 students, which will include those from Upper Marlboro area families who previously attended Arrowhead, Marlton, Melwood, Patuxent and Perrywood elementary schools.

Harmon, a native of Liberia who is pursuing a doctorate in education administration, is the former principal of Berkshire Elementary School in District Heights, which closed a year ago as part of the countywide school consolidation plan. Prior to coming to Berkshire as principal in 2003, she served as an assistant principal at Gladys N. Spellman Elementary in Cheverly and as a teacher at Ridgecrest Elementary School in Hyattsville.

When Berkshire closed, she chose the principal job at Obama Elementary because it offered a rare opportunity to create a school's environment from scratch, she said. She wants to offer teachers regular professional development opportunities and use the building's sustainable design to help students develop environmentally friendly habits at an early age.

"From the onset, we're establishing what we want and what we believe," she said.

All teachers and staff members have been hired -- the majority from within the county school system -- and the building will be fully operational by the first day of school, Aug. 23, Harmon said. The new staff includes Tiffany Doster, who was named Prince George's County Teacher of the Year in June.

Upper Marlboro resident Joan Ogburn-Hyson, who has three children entering Obama Elementary and is one of several parents volunteering to start the PTA, said she was impressed by the test scores at Berkshire Elementary while Harmon was principal and by positive reviews she heard from Berkshire parents. Before it closed, Berkshire had made Adequate Yearly Progress -- a standardized testing benchmark required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act -- since 2007.

"I think she'll be a very involved principal," Ogburn-Hyson said of Harmon. However, Ogburn-Hyson added that, given the interest in the school, she is worried about large class sizes, even though the projected student body is below the school's capacity.

Upper Marlboro resident Ronald Cobbs, whose 8-year-old daughter, Sydney Cobbs, will start third grade at Obama Elementary this year, said he toured the building earlier in the year and was impressed by the high-tech classrooms. His daughter previously attended Patuxent Elementary School.

It's too early to judge the administrative and teaching staff, Cobbs said, but after meeting Harmon earlier, he said, "She certainly seems to be very focused on the children."

As for the school's namesake, Harmon said she hopes students are inspired by President Obama's achievements. She said she sent the White House an invitation for Obama to visit the school and is waiting for a response.

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