When Susan DePlatchett was 6, she wrote to Scott, Foresman and Co., the book publisher famous for the Dick and Jane reading primers. She inquired about the last names of Dick, Jane and Sally.
The letter the company sent back in the 1950s, now browned around the edges and protected under glass, has hung near DePlatchett's desk for all 30 of the years she has worked for Prince George's County schools, including the seven years she has served as principal at Frederick Douglass High, near Upper Marlboro.
"I look at that pretty much every day," she said. "It reminds me of the inquisitive nature of kids and how an adult can make a difference when they take that seriously."
The letter explained that Dick, Jane and Sally liked secrets and were going to keep their last names hush-hush.
As DePlatchett prepares for a new school year, she is hoping the creativity and inquisitiveness of her 1,700 students will guide her as she develops programs. She will have more time for hands-on work with students this year as well, she said, because School Superintendent Iris T. Metts is relieving her of a second position as chief administrator of the Frederick Douglass cluster of eight schools.
Her high school students are not so different from the 6-year-old she once was. "They're just taller" but equally inquisitive, she said. "I love to listen to what they can dream up."
The "Student Leadership Team," unique to the school, is one program that allows representatives from each grade, club, athletic team and even informal cliques to tell faculty what they like and don't like about classroom experiences. Separate from student government, the 40-student panel meets regularly, even holding overnight "summits," to discuss everything from pep rallies to book selection.
"First, they'll want to talk about having better cafeteria food and more dances," said DePlatchett, who started the program a few years ago but had to discontinue it while juggling her two jobs with the school district. "But we get them to go a little deeper, too."
The team also helps DePlatchett get a handle on what students' worries are.
"If I needed to get a pulse on this school, I can get that fast by getting these kids together," she said. "We can be sure there are no disenfranchised groups."
Another student-influenced effort also unique to the high school is the study group program. Whenever students need or want to talk about a burning issue, such as racism or the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado, they gather in circles in each classroom and discuss what, if anything, the school can do to ease tensions or help students cope with difficult situations.
Peer counselors help coordinate the study groups and help determine when one is needed, DePlatchett said. Faculty members play a role, but it is secondary.
"It's unique," she said. Most high schools handle crisis situations differently and don't rely so heavily on the students, she said.
"We're gearing up . . . and awaiting our kids," DePlatchett said. "We need those kids, they are our touchstones."
CAPTION: Susan DePlatchett, principal of Frederick Douglass High School, will have more time for her students this year.