Vanessa Drumm-Canepa, the principal at Langley Elementary in the District, says she looks for “teachers who care about the whole child, who care about their emotional development just as much as the academic piece.” (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
Columnist

One of the first things Vanessa Drumm-Canepa did after becoming principal of Langley Elementary in the District three years ago was redesign the school’s tiger mascot.

The old tiger was a fearsome beast. Drumm-Canepa wanted the new one to be, in her words, “less scary.” This was an elementary school, after all, not a squadron of attack helicopter pilots.

The new Langley mascot is a cute tiger cub. The markings on its chest are in the shape of a heart. It’s a little thing, but it’s symbolic of the changes Drumm-Canepa has brought to Langley, the school I hope readers will support with their Giant and Harris Teeter rewards cards.

The school’s welcoming culture starts at the front door. Every morning, Drumm-Canepa stands there to greet Langley’s students — every single one, some 291 of them if no one is absent that day.

The kids — or “kiddos,” in the principal’s parlance — get to choose how they’ll be greeted that day. Do they want a fist bump? A high-five? A bear hug? Or, new this year, a butterfly: linking a thumb with Drumm-Canepa and fluttering their digits.

Drumm-Canepa is from New Jersey, where she went to public school and was among the first in her family to go to college. That was at Duke University, where she majored in history and assumed she would slide right into law school. But time spent tutoring kids at a local community center while in college changed her mind. She earned a master’s in elementary education at George Washington University.

After stints teaching in Fairfax County, Va., and San Diego, Drumm-Canepa returned to the District. She’s been here eight years, first as an instructional coach — teaching other teachers — and then as an assistant principal at Watkins Elementary before moving to Langley in the Eckington neighborhood, just east of North Capitol Street. It’s a Title I school, meaning that most of its students come from low-income families.

At Langley, Drumm-Canepa introduced a program called Conscious Discipline. It’s an approach to socio-emotional learning that considers how children’s brains work and gives students the tools to “self-regulate” their behavior.

For example, each classroom has a safe place. This isn’t a punitive timeout area — a dunce chair in the corner — but a cozy space where a kid can settle down and use felt dolls to illustrate her mood, from angry and scared to happy and calm.

Kids compliment one another, too, rewarding good behavior they’ve noticed in their peers by filling a board with supportive sticky notes.

It can sound like so much high-concept touchy-feeliness, but the approach seems to be working. Since 2015, suspensions at Langley have fallen by 50 percent.

Langley has two programs comprising six classrooms of children with autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and behavioral issues. These students were once kept apart from the other children. Drumm-Canepa has worked to integrate the groups. There are no longer separate lunch periods and separate recesses. All of the kiddos go on field trips together now, too.

What does any of this have to with the three R’s? Shouldn’t teachers be drilling STEM concepts and teaching to the test?

No, says Drumm-Canepa.

“I’m looking for teachers who care about the whole child, who care about their emotional development just as much as the academic piece,” she said.

Provide the right setting — a safe, comfortable, loving place — and the learning comes more easily.

Drumm-Canepa’s goal is a school where kids collaborate and aren’t just sitting at their desks working independently.

“I want them working in teams, spending time getting to know one another, working across divisions, setting goals,” she said. “They should be able to fail and come back again, to have that resilience. Those are all teaching moments that need to happen.”

We can help create these moments. By linking our grocery store loyalty cards to Langley, we can help the school earn some money. Drumm-Canepa said that among the things she might use it for is a renovation of the school’s impressive garden to make it easier for the students to work in it.

For Giant, go to giantfood.com and click on “Register” at the top right (or click “Sign In” if you’ve already registered). Then go to “My Account,” then “Manage Your Account,” then “Rewards & Savings.” You’ll see a button that allows you to select your school preference. Langley’s school ID number is 40895. If you need help designating the school, call 877-366-2668 and choose option No. 1.

The Harris Teeter in the District’s NoMa neighborhood has been a generous friend to Langley. The school participates in the grocery chain’s Together in Education program under the name “Langley Education Campus PTSA.” Go to harristeeter.com and click where it says “Together in Education.” Then link your VIC card number. Langley’s number is 1212.

Langley opened in 1923 as a junior high school for white students. It’s named after Samuel Pierpont Langley, third secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.