At Seven Locks Elementary School’s end-of-year picnic, students form a long gantlet and applaud as the graduating fifth-graders pass through, off to middle school.
It is a tradition that captures the tight-knit atmosphere of the school, said parent Jay Weinstein, who described the “clap-out” in a June letter to members of the Montgomery County Council, which he shared with the Almanac.
“The spirit of family and community at Seven Locks is so powerful that I cannot do it justice in words,” Weinstein wrote. "You have to see … my first grader chasing around fifth-grade boys like they were older cousins, and the smiles on all the faces of the kids as they run the clapping gauntlet like they are getting introduced for the Super Bowl.”
Weinstein was reminding the council what all the fuss is really about.
For the past two years, Seven Locks has been the focus of a heated public debate about public land and Montgomery County Public Schools’ decision-making process. The county could give up the current school site for affordable housing, with students moving to a larger school around the corner on Kendale Road, though no specific plan currently exists.
Principal Robin Gordon said that when she arrives at school each morning, questions on real estate and politics are the last thing on her mind.
“It’s certainly something that I keep informed of. It’s certainly something that I go to the meetings about,” she said, “but one of the things that we work very hard to do is to stay focused on what our job is, which is the children that we currently have in our school, this year, wherever they’re going to go next year.”
Gordon, entering her seventh year at Seven Locks, said she would stay with the Seven Locks students even if the school moves to another site. Having worked in larger schools, she doesn’t worry that the warmth and closeness of Seven Locks would be lost in a larger setting.
“I don’t expect that that would change in our new setting, with additional students — wherever that would be,” she said.
But until she receives a request to start packing up at Seven Locks and Bradley, Gordon is focused on making the current Seven Locks the best school it can be.
The school is at work on a School Improvement Plan and is beginning to implement the Baldridge process, which borrows management and strategic planning techniques from the business world.
IMPORTANCE OF PLAY
Seven Locks Elementary School Principal had this message for parents at the beginning of the school year: don’t forget to just let them play. Organized activities are wonderful for children, but shouldn’t eclipse opportunities for free play — like recess play at school — in which children think creatively and learn about social interaction.
“I really think that they need to have opportunities to play, not just in organized [settings,]” Gordon said. “There are so many opportunities in this area for organized activities for kids that I worry about kids not knowing what to do on their own — and not just video games and that sort of one-on-one thing, but real, engaged playing, creative play with other children. That’s one thing I would like to see happen more.”
School- and parent- organized community service projects are a part of life in all Montgomery County schools, but the record is particularly strong at Seven Locks Elementary.
The school kicks off the year with a Walkathon for the Homeless and ends with another community service project. In between, parents organize year-long projects for each grade level.
“I think it’s a real important part of what we do with children, that they become aware of the world outside of themselves and that they as children can contribute,” said Seven Locks Principal Robin Gordon. “I think it gives kids a sense that they can contribute, that they may be young but there’s something that they can do when they see things that bother them in the world.”
Last year, fourth-graders raised money for brain tumor research and walked in the downtown Race for Hope, which raises money for the cause. Students from all grades sold bracelets in a fund-raiser for tsunami relief, raising several thousand dollars.
Perhaps the most compelling story, though, is the Seven Locks initiative to build a new historic boat for the Great Falls section of the C&O Canal.
The C&O Canal Association and other groups now have more than $300,000 in-hand for the new boat, which will cost approximately $600,000 and the groups hope to have in operation next year. $200,000 came from a bond bill passed by the Maryland legislature earlier this year and the rest from private donations.
But the effort started with Seven Locks students, who had planned a field trip to ride on the boat when it was irreparably damaged in 2003. The students donated the field trip money, then held other fund-raisers, collecting more than $3,000.
Legislators who presented the $200,000 bond money at a ceremony in April pointed to the students as their inspiration in sponsoring the bond bill.
“That is so exciting to me,” Gordon said. “I think that’s very powerful that seven- and eight-year olds can start that.”