Jeffrey Holmes has seen a fair amount of first days of school as an educator, and he's noticed something: when elementary students are greeted as they walk through the doors, they respond with smiles and hugs.
But middle school students, Holmes said, "look at you like, 'why are you saying good morning to me?' It's different."
Holmes is the new principal at Dwight D. Eisenhower Middle School in South Laurel, where students had their first day of classes Monday, Aug. 19. Bringing experience from both the elementary and middle school level, Holmes said he expects the greetings he gets in the morning to change. It's all about building relationships.
"At the elementary level, you say good morning and you practically get attacked," he said. "But middle school students, they size you up, so to speak, to see if you're genuine. They can tell, and it's important."
Holmes is coming to Eisenhower after 11 years at Longfields Elementary School in Forestville, where he was assistant principal for two years and principal for nine. Though his administrative experience is at the elementary level, he also taught at James Madison and Drew-Freeman middle schools as well as Marlton Elementary School, so he's "no stranger" to middle school.
"Middle school has more moving parts, but kids are kids," he said. "The middle school child is going through such changes, like 'today I'm a kid, tomorrow I'm a grown-up,' and at this level you have to provide them with more structure because everything else is moving. You have to be more consistent because so many other things are calling for the students' attention. They're trying to figure out a balance so we as the adults have to be the stabilizing force in their lives."
Holmes, 43, is a native Prince Georgian who graduated from Crosslands High School. Now residing in Bowie with his wife and three children, Holmes is the fourth principal Eisenhower has had in as many years — after years at the helm, Charoscar Coleman left to become principal at Central High School, and was replaced by Brenda Chapman in 2011, who was in turn replaced by interim principal Lauretta Williams last year.
So much change in so quick a time created a kind of instability, said Annis Williams, a parent of an Eisenhower seventh-grader, especially on top of the shift last year to move sixth-graders to Eisenhower as part of a grade-level restructuring.
"It was hard," she said. "Just a difficult situation, and I think it wasn't easy on the kids. I'm hoping (Holmes) stays, and I think having a male principal is just better in terms of a disciplinary strategy. I hope this is a positive change and I'm excited."
The "stabilizing" has to extend beyond the student body and include the staff as well, Holmes said.
"That comes back to building relationships," he said. "We're taking what was in place, the good programs the staff has established, and we're refining them and enhancing them."
One of those programs is the Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports, or PBIS, and Holmes has worked with teachers over the summer to better clarify the framework for good decision-making for both the staff and students.
Holmes also tweaked Eisenhower's motto and the way it tied into PBIS. Up until this year, Eisenhower students followed the guidelines of "Respect, Responsibility, and Ready to Learn" for PBIS. Now, the students strive to be "Scholars, On-Task, Accepting Responsibility and Respecting Themselves and Others." In another word, they're learning to "soar."
"The mascot name changed, too," Holmes said. "The Soaring Eagles — it just feels different. There are a lot of eagle mascots in the county, but there weren't any soaring eagles. A soaring eagle is one who's going to rise above the challenges, rise above the storms and go to new heights. We're soaring over the challenges of our past to go forward into the future."
The mascot and motto changes are small changes, but important ones, Holmes said.
Small but important changes happened also to the school building itself — minor renovations and fresh coats of paints, and a new marquis at the school entrance by Christmas, Holmes hopes.
"We wanted to create pride in the school," Holmes said. "A building or classroom speaks to you before the teacher ever even starts teaching. When you walk in a place, the environment speaks to you. I want the building to be speaking good things."
As the school year gets underway, Holmes already knows how he wants the year to end: with tired students.
"A good tired," he said. "I want the kids to soar. They came here students; I want them to leave as scholars. I want them to be ready for what comes next."