Langley Park-McCormick Elementary School sits in a working-class neighborhood where about half the residents are foreign-born and where poverty has bred a problem with illegal drug trafficking and other crimes.
So when a group of community activists set out late last year to persuade their neighbors to become more involved in the school and community events, the last thing they expected was to receive a fat check from a wealthy benefactor.
They were merely organizing a pre-Thanksgiving dinner for the school's students and their parents. And seeking to blend past and present, they invited Washington real estate salesman Leander McCormick-Goodhart, a descendant of the family that once owned the land near the elementary school.
McCormick-Goodhart, 32, who had never visited the school, called Principal Lee Meiners days before the dinner to thank him and explain that he could not come. But he added that he was donating $10,000 to the school.
"I had heard about what they're trying to do over there, and I wanted to help," said McCormick-Goodhart, who sent the check on behalf of his family.
The gesture shocked Meiners and the Langley Park Support Group, which organized the dinner.
"We had heard of him and decided to send him an invitation, but I don't think anyone ever expected him to answer it," Meiners said. "And when he said he was sending the check, I just thought, 'Oh my God!' It was incredible."
It also surprised school officials. "We've had some schools receive computers or other equipment and money, but nothing that amounted to what Mr. McCormick-Goodhart gave Langley Park," said Jacquelyn L. Lendsey, special assistant to Superintendent John A. Murphy.
"I've never heard of any school in the state receiving a private donation close to that. It is most unusual," said Larry Chamblin, spokesman for the state department of public education.
McCormick-Goodhart grew up in Virginia and England. He said that although he had no ties to the school, he felt a certain bond to the children and people of the community because it was his grandparents' home for many years.
"I know it's going to take a lot more than what we gave to accomplish what they're trying to do, but at least it will give them a start," McCormick-Goodhart said.
Daphne Bowen-Dennis, a native of Liberia whose 9-year-old daughter attends the school, said she had not heard of McCormick-Goodhart's contribution until recently, but was pleased that someone recognized the struggling community.
"Let's face it, this is not the richest community. People here don't make a lot of money, and it shows. I'm glad someone can empathize with that," she said.
The Langley Park Support Group will decide in the next few weeks how to spend the donation, Meiners said.
"We were told to spend the money how we see fit, and that's what we're going to do," Meiners said.
Meiners said the money will not be used for immediate projects such as providing food and clothing to students' families.
"We feel there are already agencies that can provide emergency assistance like that. We want to do long-term projects," Meiners said.
The group has suggested part of the money be used for long-term projects such as expanding the English for Speakers of Other Languages Program that serves the adults in the area and hiring someone to apply for grants from the federal and state governments.
Meiners said the Langley Park Support Group, which in the past has held food and clothing drives and pointed residents in the direction of medical and dental assistance, wants to make the community's many foreign-born residents feel less isolated and more at home.
"We're trying to establish a sense of community here, but it's hard to do that when people won't come out of their homes because they fear crime or being thrown in jail for not having a green card," said Whitty Bass, chairman of the Inter-Faith Advisory Committee for Prince George's County schools.
The support group, made up of educators, members of the local business community and residents, has taken on the combined role of civic organization and PTA, providing a variety of services for local residents.
"It is a group that deals with the sociological issues because the traditional groups as we know them don't work for the foreign-born here. They don't come out to the PTA meetings because they don't have anything like that where they come from," Bass said.
In addition to charity drives, the group has participated in the organization of area festivals and has referred newcomers to relief agencies, which process them for financial assistance with food and utility bills.
County Council Vice Chairman Anthony Cicoria, whose district includes Langley Park, said police are working to rid the area of crime, and revitalization of some of the community's old neighborhoods has begun. Still, much needs to be done.
Many residents are new to the country and speak little or no English, and work at menial, low-paying jobs.
The neighborhood's Boys and Girls Club and Community Center are important meeting places for youths. The adults, many of them single parents, rarely come out of their homes except to go to work.
That's why community organizers have concentrated on the Langley Park-McCormick Elementary School, where half of the students come from 33 countries and speak 17 languages. The school is important because parents look to it as the institution where their children learn English and thereby find a way to assimilate into the American culture and make life easier for themselves and their elders.
"The school is the one thing we all have in common," Meiners said.
Meiners said the racial diversity is an advantage for the school's American students who have picked up foreign languages in conversations with their classmates.
"My favorite part about school is Spanish," said Tanya Brown, 9. "I learned it from my friend."
"I know some basic words in Spanish," said 9-year-old Shaunelle Washington.
Cecily Dennis, 9, said she enjoys school not for her classes but because she learns a lot about people.
"All kinds of people go to my school and we're all friends, except the boys," she said.