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Teachers at a Maryland school fight to keep a longtime educator

In letters they’ve written to a top school system official, they describe the potential loss of Chris Wichtendahl as ‘catastrophic’

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Kris Moss hasn’t forgotten about the desk her son was given in first grade and used until third grade at Springhill Lake Elementary School in Greenbelt.

It was specially built larger than other desks, offering enough space for him to spread out his belongings without having items nudged onto the floor. A fallen pencil might not bother other children, but it could noticeably change her son’s mood and distract him from learning.

The desk showed Moss that the school understood her son’s needs, and the administrator who provided that desk was Chris Wichtendahl.

“Ms. Wichtendahl was just always there if you had questions or needed something. She was always the backbone to the whole process,” Moss told me recently. “I can’t imagine the school without her.”

The school year for many students in Prince George’s County, Md., ended just last week. But already, members of the Springhill Lake Elementary community are thinking about the next school year and how it might start without Wichtendahl in the building for the first time in decades.

Staff members have written letters to a top official of the county’s public school system, pleading for Wichtendahl to be allowed to stay at the building where she has worked for about 30 years. A teacher familiar with the situation said that Wichtendahl’s position as a special education coordinator was eliminated as part of countywide changes to special education and that Wichtendahl did not find out in time to apply for an assistant principal position. The application window for assistant principals in the county is listed online as opening Feb. 1 and closing March 4.

“Losing Ms. Wichtendahl (‘Chris’) would be catastrophic to the staff and students of Springhill Lake Elementary,” reads a letter from staff members addressed to Monica E. Goldson, the chief executive of the school system. “In many ways, Chris is the heart and soul of our school. She has been a constant that staff and families count on, which is especially significant considering the transience of our population coupled with 2 years of pandemic upheaval. She is our stability in an uncertain time in education.”

The letter describes Wichtendahl as already performing the responsibilities of an assistant principal, as well as facilitating the “home-school connection,” working with community businesses and organizations to provide clothing and food donations throughout the year and supporting staff and students who are part of the special education and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages programs.

“Every day, as dedicated PGCPS educators, we strive to meet the needs of our students amid staff shortages and increasing demands,” the letter reads. “We are now calling on you to help us meet the needs of our school by allowing us to keep Chris Wichtendahl, our proven effective, knowledgeable and dedicated administrator at Springhill Lake Elementary.”

The elementary school is one of many across the country that serve a high number of low-income students, and during the pandemic, those schools have faced extraordinary challenges on top of the normal ones. It has fallen to staff members to keep classes going despite a nationwide teacher shortage, despite students’ experiencing loss in multiple forms, despite staff members and students regularly testing positive for the coronavirus.

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There is no question much has been asked of educators in the last few years, so when they ask for something, we should listen. And what they are asking for at Springhill Lake is that an exception be made in the hiring process so they can hold onto a longtime educator who makes their footing feel more stable during an unstable time.

Asked about Wichtendahl’s situation, Prince George’s County Public Schools spokesperson Meghan Gebreselassie said officials could not comment on a personnel matter.

Wichtendahl, through a colleague, also declined to comment for this column. That’s understandable, since doing so would have required her to speak about a school system she depends on for employment.

But her colleagues are not staying quiet. A few spoke about her situation to the Greenbelt News Review for an article that ran earlier this month. And then there are the letters. More than two dozen staff members have signed their names to letters on her behalf. Several of those letters were shared with me.

“Personally, I have spent my entire 20 year career at Springhill Lake,” reads one. “I began as a student teacher and am now the Literacy Instructional Lead Teacher. I have seen many administrators come and go throughout this time and know how the ‘wrong fit’ can damage our morale as well as our day-to-day functions as a staff and school community. I can say with certainty and clarity that Chris’ dedication to our work has not and will not be matched by another.”

Special education teacher Danielle Todd-Jones has taught for 20 years and has spent 18 of those at Springhill Lake Elementary School. She credits Wichtendahl with helping her get through her first year of teaching and as being the reason she got her master’s degree in special education.

Wichtendahl was helping students with special needs thrive in general education classrooms before that became common practice, Todd-Jones said.

“She always made sure it wasn’t ‘them and us,’ ” she said. “Everyone was included. They were all our kids.”

Moss, whose son was a student of Todd-Jones years ago, said Wichtendahl made sure he didn’t feel singled out. Todd-Jones described her as doing that for many students. She said each school year usually begins with Wichtendahl getting backpacks filled with school supplies to children whose families couldn’t afford them.

“She fights for the kiddos,” Todd-Jones said. “She fights for the teachers.”

In her letter, she described Wichtendahl as more than a special education coordinator.

“She was and continues to be the one whom staff talks to when they are struggling with change, students who need more support, or just to vent because some days are really hard,” it reads. “She offers a safe space for staff, students, and parents to navigate elementary education.”

Todd-Jones acknowledged in her letter that there will come a day when Wichtendahl is not part of the school’s community. But right now, she wrote, the school needs her.

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