On a warm morning in mid-July, landscape crews at Pikesville Middle School are replacing weeds with shrubs. Inside, desks and chairs line the hallways as paint crews freshen up classrooms and offices, the pungent smell lingering in the air.
Classes at the Baltimore County public school, 7701 Seven Mile Lane, don't start until August 27. Already, though, Diane Richmond, barely two weeks into her new job as principal, is making an impact.
"As soon as I walked in I thought, the campus needs to be beautiful to reflect the quality of the program," said Richmond, who initiated improvements to the building and grounds that includes transforming an overgrown indoor courtyard for student use.
"I felt we needed to do this right away. We want to make the students feel welcome," said Richmond, a Carroll County resident and forty-something married mother of two. Her husband, Joerg Richmond, is in health care. Her 18-year old son is starting college; her daughter attends middle school.
Pikesville Middle has approximately 950 students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. The school draws from diverse geographic neighborhoods in Pikesville and the Liberty Road corridor. Students come from Bedford, Fort Garrison, Milbrook, Summit Park and Wellwood elementary schools, as well as Woodholme elementary depending on students' addresses.
Richmond is more than familiar with the area. She has spent her entire 22-year career in education in the county public school system. She taught at Owings Mills Elementary School, was assistant principal at Bedford Elementary and, for the last 12 years, was principal of Summit Park Elementary. She is completing a doctoral degree in instructional leadership at Notre Dame University of Maryland.
Pikesville Middle's principal position became available with the retirement of its longtime head, Mia Talarigo. The Summit Park community encouraged Richmond to apply. Both Richmond and the community saw it as an opportunity to continue her work at Summit Park elementary that, under her leadership, was named a National Blue Ribbon School and a Maryland Blue Ribbon School of Excellence.
"Middle-school students are going through adolescent changes. They are developmentally different from elementary school students," she said of her transition from elementary to middle school. "But all students respond to an engaging instructional program."
Richmond sent a letter to Pikesville Middle families last June outlining her educational philosophy: supporting the faculty, involving parents in the school community and, for students, providing challenging courses, extracurricular opportunities and a safe learning environment.
"I want to make every student feel successful and important," she said, sitting in her office. "I want students to have an interest in learning, and to develop study skills and a work ethic. I want students to participate in after-school clubs, athletics and organizations so they feel connected to the whole school.
Said Richmond, "The greater the connection to the school, the higher the academic achievement."
Beyond the student experience, though, Richmond has an equally important goal. She wants to make Pikesville Middle a "community-centered school," in her words, where "everyone is excited to send their kids."
Richmond is aware of the challenge in Pikesville Middle. It has a diverse economic and racial student mix. Minorities comprise 74 percent of the student body, well above the state average of 57 percent, according to public school data. In 2012, approximately 47 percent of students received free or discounted lunch.
The school currently has a parent association that has just a handful of members. Richmond hopes to attract more Pikesville Middle parents and more community involvement by forming a parent-teacher association that could sponsor what she calls "school spirit" events.
"I'd like to plan a lot of events that advertise us," she said. "The community needs to take advantage of this great middle school."
Richmond intends to celebrate Pikesville Middle's diversity. "This is the world in which we live. People have different backgrounds," she said, noting that at Summit Park, almost all the graduating students went on to Pikesville Middle.
Madlyn Kroll knows Richmond well. For 12 years, she was a fourth-grade teacher at Summit Park Elementary. This summer, she became assistant principal at Hampton Elementary School in Towson.
Kroll describes Richmond as "creative and innovative. She has high expectations for staff and students." Kroll remembers Richmond as staying on top of educational trends, and making sure they happened at Summit Park.
"She was always looking for what was best for the children and teachers," said Kroll. "She was a hands-on principal, visiting classrooms and talking to teachers."
As for Richmond, that's exactly how she plans to spend her days once school starts. Instead of finding her seated in her office, "I'll be walking in and out of classrooms every day. I will be interacting with the students.
"It's hard work but a great way to reach people," she said.