Everyday this week, teachers at Nottingham Elementary School are going through the annual late-August ritual of preparing their classrooms for a new set of students.
Posters are being taped to walls. Books are unloaded from boxes onto shelves. Desks and chairs are continuously arranged and rearranged, depending on the teacher’s mood or the amount of light beaming into the room.
Yet for Nottingham teachers this seemingly routine exercise has taken on the trappings of a joyous homecoming, akin to college students returning to campus after a year abroad. That’s because Nottingham operated as a school-in-exile last year, marooned in trailers and the aging Wilson building in downtown Rosslyn, while their school underwent a $12 million makeover.
The changes at Nottingham go beyond bricks and mortar. The school also has a new principal this fall — Mary Beth Pelosky, previously an assistant principal at Swanson Middle School. And enrollment is expected to jump by more than 12 percent over last year.
With so many changes occurring at once, many teachers said there was a greater sense of excitement and eagerness among the staff than at any time in recent memory.
"We are all thrilled to be back in the neighborhood," said Linda Toner, a Kindergarten teacher who has worked at the school for 12 years. "It’s very much a community-based school, with a supportive staff…and a new, clearly enthusiastic principal."
Over the past two weeks, dozens of parents and students have stopped by to get a look at the new building, which includes renovated classrooms, new administrative offices, a media library center, extra playgrounds and an outdoor classroom space in a courtyard.
Thus far parents and students have given the building rave reviews.
"We drove past it and my son said ‘I can’t wait to go back,’" said Clare Hessler, vice president of the Nottingham PTA. Hessler has a daughter going into third grade and twin sons entering second grade. "It’s going to be a great start to a new year."
BY MOST ACCOUNTS the past year was "a challenging one" for the Nottingham family, Hessler said, full of tumult and unexpected surprises.
In January 2005, over Martin Luther King weekend, the students and teachers moved out of the Nottingham building, in the northwest corner of the county, and relocated to the Wilson site in the downtown Rosslyn.
The Nottingham building was constructed in the early 1950s and has undergone few substantial renovations since. The school was laid out poorly, the offices were cramped and the library lacked 21st century technology, teachers said.
The school serves as a focal point for the community, parents said. Many walk their children to school each morning or drop them off by car. This gives parents the opportunity to chat with teachers on a regular basis and check out their children’s classrooms.
So many parents are responsible for getting their children to school each day that Nottingham operates only one bus, said Sandy Barrett, the PTA president last year.
When the school moved across the county to Rosslyn last year, all that changed. The Arlington County Public School system four more buses to transport its students, and far fewer parents brought their children to school. "The sense of cohesiveness was lost," said Renee Schaefer, a fifth grade teacher.
The frequent interactions between parents and teachers ended, and parents said they missed the casual meetings and gossip-fests that occurred on the steps of the building each morning.
"It was no longer a community gathering-place," Hessler said. "[The move] wasn’t so tough on the children, but it was tougher on the parents."
Due to space constraints, teachers and students also had an adjustment period. Having only one multi-purpose room meant gym classes were curtailed to once a week. Students had to alter their recess activities because of the lack green space on the Wilson site.
Being situated in the cramped confines of Rosslyn also served as a positive experience for the children, teachers and parents said.
They were able to visit neighboring businesses for school projects- which never happened in the old school since it is ensconced in a residential community- and befriended the fire fighters next door, Hessler said. Students were forced to come up with creative games during recess that would work in an urban environment.
Riding the bus each day also served as a maturation process for the children and an eye-opener for parents, Toner, the Kindergarten teacher, said. "Parents realized how independent their children can be," she added.
IN EARLY MARCH, Nottingham principal Sharon Davis-Holmes, who had been at the helm of the school for 12 years, called a staff meeting and announced, to the shock of all assembled, that she was retiring at the end of the month.
No one had seen the move coming, teachers said. "It was startling to lose your principal in the middle of the year," Toner said.
During the staff session, and during a subsequent meeting with Barrett, Davis-Holmes said she was leaving to "pursue another job opportunity," but did not elaborate, Barrett and several teachers recalled. By the end of the month she was gone. Davis-Holmes could not be reached for comment.
A letter from the school was sent home with each child announcing the turnover in leadership. Assistant principal Cynthia Jamieson was promoted to interim principal and Doug Bullock, a retired Arlington elementary school principal, was brought in to help coordinate the construction process.
Nottingham parents were caught off guard by the pronouncement, and some said they were disappointed they never were told by either School Board members or Superintendent Robert Smith why Davis-Holmes abruptly resigned.
"There was not much info from the School Board as to why it happened," Hessler said. "There were no real answers."
Smith admitted that there was "some tension" due to the change in leadership, but said more information was not provided to parents because it was a private personnel matter. School Board member Dave Foster said it was against School Board policy to discuss personnel issues.
Davis-Holmes "retired and that is about as much as we need to tell anybody," Smith added. "It doesn’t serve any purpose to do more than that and it wouldn’t be appropriate. The focus became finding a good replacement."
A STEERING COMMITTEE, comprising principals from other schools, school staff members, Nottingham parents and Nottingham teachers, began to vet candidates this spring. After a lengthy search they chose Pelosky. [See sidebar]
Pelosky said she was delighted to be picked for the job, especially because of the community’s reputation for being heavily devoted to the school.
"I’m enthused about the opportunity to join such a strong staff, a beautiful new facility and a school with great kids and families," she added.
Pelosky has held two formal meet-and-greet sessions with parents and has won initial plaudits from those who have met her. "She is very invested in making sure everyone is taken care of, and that the transition goes smoothly," Hessler said.
The other big change for Nottingham this fall will be the influx of additional students. At the end of last year enrollment stood at 376 students. For the first day of class this year, which is next Tuesday, 427 students are expected to attend, an increase of 12 percent.
Most of the increase is due to a larger number of Kindergartners, jumping from 52 at the end of last school year to a projected 93 this fall. Capacity at Nottingham is 430, so school officials said the influx of students will not be a detriment. "It’s not a bad problem to have," Pelosky added.
School enrollment tends to spike the year following major renovations as parents are more willing to send their children to the local public schools, said Linda Erdos, communications director for the school system.
In the week before school begins, the school staff is hard at work putting the finishing touches on the new facility. Unpacked boxes still fill the media center and a section of the office wall requires another layer of paint.
The Nottingham community, though, can hardly contain their excitement for the new school to be open for their children to use.
"Parents are really happy about the new building and principal," Barrett said. "There’s lots of energy right now, and we believe it will be a wonderful year."