After 22 years, school's first day still excites new Relay Elementary principal

Lisa Dingle has spent more than two decades in the Baltimore County Public Schools system and has yet to get a good night's sleep on the eve of the first school day of the year.

Dingle, who replaced Heidi Miller as principal of Relay Elementary School in July, said the start of the school year is just too exciting for her to relax the night before.

"Even though I have 22 years in the system, every year is a new start," said Dingle, principal at Winfield Elementary School in Windsor Mill for the previous five years.

A fresh start, and having a new colleague in Assistant Principal Debra Pueschel, doesn't mean she plans an overhaul for the school on Selford Road that has shown outstanding success on the Maryland State Assessments.

In 2012, the school had at least 95 percent of its third-, fourth and fifth-grade students rank as proficient or higher in reading and math in the statewide assessments called MSAs, according to the Baltimore County Public Schools website. The county does not release specific scores above the 95th percentile.

Students in the three grades scored at the maximum percentile in math and reading in 2011, 2010 and 2009.

Only a score of 89.3 in math by the fifth-grade class and a score of 89.2 in the third-grade class in reading prevented that streak from extending even longer.

In the science assessment of the 2012 assessments, nearly 81 percent of fifth-grade students, the only grade to take that test, ranked as proficient or better, the website stated.

"Relay has been doing a phenomenal job, so there's no need for a drastic change," Dingle said of the school, which has an enrollment of 524, according to its website.

"The teachers here are outstanding," she said. "The parent support is phenomenal. So they're already off to a good start," she said.

The Randallstown resident said she plans to have students who fell just short of ranking as advanced in the tests reach the next level by pushing "them a little further and having them expand their mind a little more."

Just as Dingle has found few things to change so far in academics, she will likely change little in other areas.

On Aug. 24, the school will have its annual Peak at Your Seat program, which allows kids to see their classroom and meet their teacher before the official start of the school year Monday.

"It takes away all those anxieties from the first day of school," said Dingle, who had a similar program at her previous school.

Dingle said she has also heard from parents about keeping a popular winter program.

The school will keep its "Polar Express" program, during which guests read the holiday classic by Chris Van Allsburg to students.

"We're going to continue the things that the community values," Dingle said. "As I get to know the building, we'll see what we can add to those values."

For Sara Toscano, the school's PTA president, Dingle already fits in with Relay Elementary's environment.

Toscano said Dingle has worked well already with the PTA and integrated its plans for the school year into the curriculum.

"It's going to be a wonderful school year. She's really on top of all the rules and all of the policies," Toscano said. "She's powerful, but she's humble. She's going to be a good fit for us. I truly believe that."

The one thing that stands out about Dingle to Toscano?

"Her commitment to make Relay one of the No. 1 schools in the county," Toscano said Aug. 22. "She's committed to our children and she hasn't even met our children yet."

Dingle expects one of her biggest challenge — after learning an entirely new group of parents, students and teachers — is ensuring students receive individualized attention despite the school's over-capacity population.

A fourth learning cottage has been installed on the school's campus before the start of the school year to accommodate its growing population.

Dingle said the school has met issues of overcrowding in the past with aplomb and told her teachers that the fact that so many parents are moving to the community is an indication of the good work they have done.

Despite any concerns, Dingle said the first two months in her position as principal at Relay Elementary have been good and bode well for the future.

"If the summer is any indication how the school year is going to be, it's going to be a great school year," she said.

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