Eric Bethel, principal of Turner Elementary School in Southeast Washington, D.C. Turner is a school that readers of John Kelly's Washington are supporting with their grocery store loyalty cards in 2015-2016. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
Columnist

All teachers gravitate to the sorts of students they enjoy teaching, the age and temperament they seem to click with best. Is it cute li’l kindergartners or gifted-and-talented high-schoolers? Distractible middle-schoolers or driven graduate students? Eric Bethel, why did you end up at an elementary school?

“That’s a great question,” said the principal of Anita J. Turner Elementary in Southeast D.C. “They’re at the stage where they’re so curious, and at the same time they’re so impressionable. You can see elementary school kids light up when they get something or when they are interested in something. High school folks may say the same, but for me, that’s what I see.”

Turner Elementary is the school I hope you will support this year with your Giant and other store loyalty cards.

Turner is in a challenging neighborhood. Ninety-nine percent of its students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. A quick check of the D.C. police department’s Web site found 55 violent crimes within 1,500 feet of Turner so far this calendar year, compared with 10 near Ward 3’s Janney Elementary.

But where the need is greatest, the help can go furthest. Bethel, 37, has just started his second year as principal of the Congress Heights school. He wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Both his parents were teachers, his father after a stint in the U.S. Army. Dad was a PE teacher and administrator in Arlington County. Mom taught special ed there. Their son saw the lifelong impact they made: “Literally being in the grocery store and seeing some 24-year-old run up to my dad and say, ‘Mr. Bethel, I wouldn’t have made it without you. You’re such a big help.’ My parents getting wedding pictures from former students.”

Bethel graduated from Bishop McNamara High in Forestville, then attended Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Md., on a basketball scholarship. He started at point guard when the team made it to the NCAA Tournament in 1999.

“Of course, we got blown out in the first round by Michigan State,” he said with a rueful chuckle.

After earning a master’s degree in education at Mount St. Mary’s, Bethel came to Washington, teaching at Marie Reed Elementary in Adams Morgan before being tapped as a teacher mentor, then plucked to enter principal training.

“I wanted to serve where I thought the most need was,” he said. “I wanted to teach in a high-poverty center.”

And he wanted to be in an elementary school.

“I’ve seen what happens when elementary instruction doesn’t take place,” Bethel said. “Students go to [middle school] with a huge deficit. It’s very, very hard to catch up.”

Studies have shown that poor reading ability in the third grade correlates with a high risk of dropping out of high school. High school dropouts have higher rates of unemployment and incarceration.

Bethel finds this tragic. “Can you imagine being statistically counted out at 8?” he said.

Last year, Bethel focused on improving Turner’s culture, making it a safer, more pleasant place for its 464 students in pre-K through fifth grade. The school has shown strides in that regard and is now broadening to academics.

Bethel also launched a program for medically fragile students from the neighborhood, 16 of whom now attend Turner. Said Bethel: “Most people said, ‘That’s a big, high-needs population. Are you sure you can take them?’ And I’m like, ‘We’re going to.’ ”

By linking our Giant, Harris Teeter or Target cards to Turner, we can help the school get a few thousand dollars it otherwise wouldn’t have. Principal Bethel thinks he will use the money for unbudgeted items such as additional buses for field trips and to supplement Turner’s uniform closet. Some families can’t afford the school’s uniform: khaki pants with a white or light blue shirt.

Here’s what to do: Giant’s program, A+ School Rewards, starts Friday and runs through March 17. You must re-enroll your Giant card if you wish to change the school you’re supporting. You can do that at www.giantfood.com/aplus. Scroll to “for customers” and click on “register your card.” Put in your 12-digit Giant card number and the first three letters of your last name, then enter the Turner identification number: 08388. If you don’t know your Giant card number, call 877-275-2758, option 2.

If you shop at Harris Teeter, go to www.harristeeter.com , and under Community, click where it says “Together in Education.” Then click on “Link to Your School” and “Click to Re-Link VIC Card.” Click on “Add a School” and search for Turner in Washington, D.C. Its number is 3622.

Turner also is signed up with Target’s REDcard program. The school number is 39661.

Safeway is in a transition period and is not enrolling any new schools.

What’s in a name?

Who was the school’s namesake? Anita J. Turner was an African American teacher and administrator who in the 1920s became physical training director for Washington’s “colored” schools. Turner organized citywide athletic events, including field days at Griffith Stadium and health screenings for black children. Health rules, she once said, “must become habits.”

I think she would have gotten along with Principal Bethel.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.