D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson showed up unannounced Tuesday at Kelly Miller Middle School, surprising Principal Abdullah Zaki with the news that he is the school system’s principal of the year.
Principals ambushed in the past with such happy news have been known to get a little teary, a little emotional. Not Zaki. He cracked a slow smile and shook his head, demonstrating the kind of unflappability that comes in handy when you’re running a school for hundreds of preteens.
“When we looked at the principal who really knocked it out of the park this year, you were at the top of the list,” Henderson told him.
A former teacher at Theodore Roosevelt Senior High School, Zaki served as an administrator at an alternative charter school and two traditional schools — Frank W. Ballou Senior High and Benjamin Banneker Academic High — before taking the helm at Kelly Miller several years ago.
He arrived at the Northeast Washington school after years of leadership ferment and quickly was able to “stop the chaos that comes with turnover,” Henderson said. Under his leadership, truancy and suspensions have plummeted, while math and reading test scores have risen.
“He is a calming presence who holds kids to high standards,” Henderson said. “He’s made Kelly Miller a place where kids want to be.”
Zaki has overseen the introduction of a gifted-education program at Kelly Miller and has begun inviting advanced fifth-graders from Aiton Elementary, a struggling school down the street, to Saturday math sessions.
It’s a tactic that not only boosts students’ math skills, Henderson said, but also persuades many parents to enroll their children — who might not have considered staying in the school system past fifth grade — in Kelly Miller.
This year’s DCPS teacher of the year is Kathy Hollowell-Makle, a kindergarten teacher at Southeast’s Abram Simon Elementary. She let out a little yelp when Henderson surprised her Tuesday.
“I’m just shocked!” Hollowell-Makle said. “I’m speechless.”
Hollowell-Makle began teaching in 1998 as a Teach for America corps member in the District. Henderson was executive director of TFA’s Washington office at the time. “She is a fantastic teacher,” Henderson said.
Adelaide Flamer, principal of Simon, said she nominated Hollowell-Makle for the award because of her commitment to doing what’s best for each individual student in her classroom.
“She’s a prime example of this old adage: Those who can, teach,” Flamer said.
Zaki and Hollowell-Makle — and hundreds of others educators deemed highly effective on annual evaluations — will be honored Nov. 4 at a Kennedy Center ceremony.