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Mt. Daniel Principal Erin Kelly Gets School Ready for Growth

NEW MT. DANIEL SCHOOL PRINCIPAL Erin Kelly sits at the desk that was occupied by her predecessor, Kathy Halayko, for nearly two decades. Kelly said that Halayko left behind her collection of  purple hippopotami, some of which were left behind by Halayko’s predecessor. (Photo: Drew Costley/News-Press)
NEW MT. DANIEL SCHOOL PRINCIPAL Erin Kelly sits at the desk that was occupied by her predecessor, Kathy Halayko, for nearly two decades. Kelly said that Halayko left behind her collection of purple hippopotami, some of which were left behind by Halayko’s predecessor. (Photo: Drew Costley/News-Press)

Erin Kelly, the new principal at Mt. Daniel School, spoke to the News-Press the day after the school finished its final back to school night of the year. Kelly, who served as the school’s assistant principal for two years before taking over from Kathy Halayko, said that it has been a smooth transition from her predecessor.

“It’s been good. We’ve had a really smooth start. People have been happy,” Kelly said. “We did both of our back to school nights already….Parents seemed to enjoy that. Once we’re past that we’re in our routines for the year and it’s been nice.”

One of the issues that has cropped up since Kelly began the transition into her new position at Mt. Daniel is the spike in enrollment. Kindergarten, which is housed at Mt. Daniel, is the only grade that was over the enrollment limit set for Falls Church schools by the Falls Church School Board. That grade level has 24 children in its class, which is two over the school board’s limit.

“It takes a little longer to teach them the routines and everything, but the teachers have done a great job in working with the extra kids,” Kelly said. “In kindergarten we do have a teacher and a [paraprofessional] all day long, so we do have two adults in the classroom, which helps a lot.

“And a few years ago before I was here they had another spike like this, where they had similar numbers. So most of them have done this before, so it’s nice to have less kids, but they‘ve done it before and now that everybody is here and they’ve gotten to know the kids we’re all settled. We’re making it work.”

Kelly said that the teachers have to structure their days a little different in years with over enrollment in order to ensure that the children are getting the same amount of teacher to student interaction, but otherwise that’s really the only change.

A much larger change is coming to Mt. Daniel School, though, with the recent approval of the City’s plan to expand the school building in order to move second grade from Thomas Jefferson Elementary School to Mt. Daniel.

MT. DANIEL SCHOOL PRINCIPAL ERIN KELLY speaks to kindergarten students in David Sikora’s class at the school on Friday, Oct. 7. (Photo: Drew Costley/News-Press)
MT. DANIEL SCHOOL PRINCIPAL ERIN KELLY speaks to kindergarten students in David Sikora’s class at the school on Friday, Oct. 7. (Photo: Drew Costley/News-Press)

Construction of the expansion, which will begin in summer 2017, will add enough space to house 660 more students and increase the school’s parking to over 100 spots.
“I think it’s too bad that we had to cut out some of the size of the building, but I understand why they needed us to do that because it is a small road leading up to the school. So that was a good compromise that we could make and we’re happy to get going,” Kelly said.

“We’re glad we’re not starting until summer. That gives time to plan and for everyone to get packed up….We thought we were going to do it before, so we have a lot of plans that we’ll just pick up right where we left off, so we’re ready to get going on that.”

Kelly came to the Falls Church City Public Schools system from Ohio, where she started her career in education as an 8th grade math teacher and moved on to serve as an assistant principal. She said that “she worked her way down to the little people” and that she loves the little kids and it’s been fun being at Mt. Daniel.

“The biggest change when I first started with elementary school kids is how sensitive they were. They would send me the kids that were, you know, crying or upset or missing their moms. You don’t have much of that in middle school, but the kids at this age are just so excited to learn and they are so excited to be here and they really want to just genuinely to do a good job,” Kelly said.

“And by the time they get to middle school they are kind of too cool for school and don’t really want be there or don’t want to look like they’re too interested, but in both places it’s all about building relationships with the kids. You do that in different ways in each place but it’s just getting to know them and what they like and what they need, so it’s similar in that sense.”

Kelly is one of three new Falls Church City Public Schools principals who had experience in the system prior to assuming the helm of one of the system’s schools. (Matt Hills previously served as George Mason High School’s assistant principal before taking over for Tyrone Byrd this year.)

She said that she worked closely with Halayko, who worked at Mt. Daniel for for nearly three decades before retiring last school year.

“I think one of the things that Kathy did so well is that she created such a collaborative community in this school. All of the teachers are viewed as professionals and we trusted them that they knew what they were doing and to do their jobs,” Kelly said.

“But also if they had a problem or a question they were free to come to us and we’d work with them, so I definitely want to maintain that. It’s the same with the parents, we had a open door policy here. If they ever had a question we wanted them to come us and ask, especially with it being some of their first times having children in school. We never wanted someone to be wondering about something or stewing about something. We always welcomed that feedback, so I want to continue that.”

Kelly said the thing she wants to change from her predecessor is something that’s going to have to change, which is adding second grade to the school. Getting ready for that switch is one of the school’s goals for the years, she said.

Another is implementing PBIS, which stands for Positive Behavior Interventions & Supports. Kelly said that she’s going to help teachers get that in place and reflect on its effectiveness throughout the year.

The school also adopted a new writing curriculum. Finally, Kelly said that there were recommendations that the school received from the Primary Years Programme’s authorization board during its evaluation last year to improve the school’s International Baccalaureate program.

“It went well but they had some recommendations for us moving forward, so we’re going to work on those,” Kelly said. “They won’t come back for five years, but this year we’re going to set a timeline for how we’re going to address these things by the time they come back.”

This is the first story in a series profiling the three new Falls Church City Public Schools principals.

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