It’s been a decade since JoAnn “Jody” Leleck helped transform Montgomery County’s lowest-performing school into one of its high achievers — a decade since she was clocking so many hours at Broad Acres Elementary that her staff fondly dubbed her “Ms. 7-11.”
Leleck, who died in 2012, has not been forgotten.
The Silver Spring school that she once led became JoAnn Leleck Elementary School at Broad Acres this month — one of about a dozen schools in Montgomery that have been named to honor a county educator over the years.
The school’s sign out front has not yet changed but its Web site has been remade, and in the main office, staffers now take a certain delight in their new greeting when people call.
“Good morning, JoAnn Leleck Elementary School at Broad Acres,” they say.
Leleck died at 62 after a battle of 6 1 / 2 years against colon cancer. “She kept working; she did not give up,” said Paul Leleck, her husband. Her career of 26 years as a teacher and administrator in Montgomery included one of the district’s top positions, chief academic officer, before she retired in 2011.
But her work at Broad Acres, the highest-poverty school in Montgomery, is still the talk of those who knew her. The school, with children from more than 30 countries, is off New Hampshire Avenue, inside the Beltway.
Leleck was a first-year principal in 1999 when she embraced a school that was on the verge of a state takeover, with just 13 percent of third-graders proficient in reading and 5 percent proficient in math.
By 2004, the school had attracted national attention for its rebound, with proficiency levels of 67 percent in math and 75 percent in reading, according to a case study conducted by the district.
Her efforts for change are included in a 2009 book about Montgomery school improvement work published by Harvard Educational Press.
Fellow educators credited her tenacity and focus; her emphasis on teamwork and data-driven strategies; and her high expectations of students, staff, parents and herself. She asked her teachers to commit to three years at the school — losing some and hiring others. She worked with district leaders and unions on new approaches.
She was known for asking job candidates what made them worthy of teaching the children of Broad Acres.
“She had this real passion for helping students and helping teachers to help students,” recalled Rosie Ramirez, a longtime colleague and friend.
Peter Bray, now principal of the school, said Leleck’s legacy lives on. About half the staff worked under her, he said, and the culture of collaboration she started — before the idea took hold in many schools — continues. Test scores are not as high as they once were but are still much improved from 2000, officials said.
“She made such a dramatic transformation,” he said. “It was very effective, and it’s long remembered.”
On Friday, Mary Powell, the school’s registrar, and Tam Nguyen, the administrative secretary, recalled the educator who they said inspired them.
There is already a memorial courtyard at the school and a rose garden out front created in her honor.
“She just bonded with everyone who she ever talked to,” Powell said.
Nguyen said the principal arrived for work at 6 in the morning and often stayed until midnight.
She said Leleck remembered not just each child’s name but their test scores and their parents’ names. “When parents walked in, she knew exactly who they were,” she said. “She was so smart, extremely. She knew everything in the school.”
One thing Leleck watched closely was attendance, Powell said. In some cases when a child was absent, “she would go right to their house and pick them up,” she recalled.
At a school board meeting last month — with the school’s renaming on the agenda — many of those touched by Leleck showed up to testify or watch. When the measure was unanimously approved, people rose from their seats, applauding.
Superintendent Joshua P. Starr told those gathered that Leleck personified the meaning of high expectations. “She let everyone in the school know she believed they could achieve great things, so achieve great things they did,” he said.
Michael A. Durso, a school board member who knew Leleck during years when both were Montgomery principals, said he has rarely seen an educator who has had such a powerful effect. “People feel very strongly about her, to the point of choking up when her name would come up,” he said.
But the discussion spurred a petition drive to rename the school where Leleck made her mark. More than 200 members of the Broad Acres community signed the petition.
Iris Hernandez, the PTA’s vice president, said parents who never met Leleck learned of her intensity about bettering the school. “We can see now what she did, because the school has made a lot of progress,” she said.