Every principal can use an extra set of hands, but Mary Donnelly of Baltimore's John Ruhrah Elementary/Middle School never imagined she'd have 80.
School leaders from across the country took to the Southeast Baltimore school's yard Wednesday, building a new playground to replace one whose missing pieces and decrepit structure had become a safety hazard.
"I'm overwhelmed — but in a good way," said Donnelly, who has led the school for 12 years. "This is a gathering place for our community, and I'm a firm believer in kids getting outside. It's just wonderful."
The project was part of a day of service kicking off the National Association of Elementary School Principals conference held in the city this week, which will draw hundreds of K-8 principals and high-profile speakers such as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and University of Maryland Baltimore County President Freeman A. Hrabowski III to the Baltimore Convention Center.
The association began incorporating the service projects into its annual conferences about five years ago, partnering with the company Landscape Structures, which donates services and supplies for the playgrounds.
John Ruhrah was chosen from a pool of applicants for the new playground, according to NAESP officials.
"We were shocked and then very grateful," said Kimberly Hirsch, the parent of a third-grader and a staff member at the school. "It was very hard on recess duty this year. We had to find a lot of different things for them to do. But the kids like to be very hands-on. So this is going to be amazing."
The need and uniqueness of John Ruhrah — where 10 languages are spoken, 46 percent of students are English-language learners, 53 percent of students are Hispanic, and 88 percent of students receive free and reduced-price lunches — made the school a prime candidate for the playground, said Nancy Meador, president of the association.
"Each of us, in our own communities from coast to coast, get the support we need," said Meador, a principal of 20 years who leads a school in Tennessee. "Principals are public servants at heart, so we want to pay it forward and give it back. This isn't about show. It's all about the kids."
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The school leaders enthusiastically delved into the project after being welcomed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
"It's a great way to give back to schools that are a little less fortunate," said Patty Barrett, a principal from Massachusetts. "When you're a principal, you're the person that everyone looks to. I would take 80 principals in a heartbeat to do any kind of work."
"The only thing about 80 principals is that they're all used to being in charge," Mark Terry, a Texas principal, later quipped.
For the principals, the service day was also an opportunity to connect with their peers who are navigating the same reforms taking place around the country, as they head into a conference about best practices.
"Part of it is making connections," said David Hanson, a principal from North Dakota. "If I have a question … my network of experts spans states."