Cooke’s Course

This article appears in the February 2018 Glover Park Gazette and is reprinted with permission.

By Randy Rieland

  Principal Lucas Cooke outside his office at Hardy Middle School. Photo by   Randy Rieland.

Principal Lucas Cooke outside his office at Hardy Middle School. Photo by Randy Rieland.

Middle school is hard. It’s a time of tricky transitions, not just from childhood to adolescence, but also from the comfortable familiarity of a neighborhood school like Stoddert to more fluid and complex surroundings.

Lucas Cooke certainly understands this. “When kids come in, it’s a whole different experience from elementary school,” he said. “You’re coming from a place where you may have been in class with the same 30 kids for years. Then you come here, where we have kids from 16 or 17 different elementary schools. And now you don’t know everyone. And you go to seven different classrooms in a day and have to get to know seven different teachers.”

The “here” in this case is Hardy Middle School, where Cooke is halfway through his first year as principal. To smooth the passage from elementary to middle school, he said, Hardy launched a program last fall that allowed incoming sixth graders to come in for half-day orientation sessions to meet teachers and get acclimated.

But there’s another trend that’s also softening the landing for Stoddert students at Hardy—their group keeps getting larger. Two years ago, 10 Stoddert students moved on to Hardy. In the fall of 2016, it was 20, and last year, the number rose to 28. That was more than half of Stoddert’s graduating fifth grade class.

Making a Commitment. A big reason, according to Glover Parker Jason Orlando—whose daughter, Sophie, is now a Hardy seventh grader—is that neighborhood families made a commitment, as a group, to the school. Orlando said he and his wife, Amy, felt good about the direction of both DC Public Schools and Hardy. “I personally disliked the idea that kids would spend a few years together at Stoddert, then go their separate ways,” Orlando said. “I just believe there is some value in coming up through school with your peers. And I wanted to get together with other like-minded families to see if we could make that happen.”

That effort seems to have paid off. In fact, the trend extends beyond Stoddert. More than 60 percent of Hardy’s current sixth grade class comes from its five feeder schools in Northwest DC—Stoddert, Key, Horace Mann, Hyde-Addison, and Eaton. But it does present Cooke with a different challenge—maintaining a diverse student population at Hardy, which, he says, is one of its greatest assets.

"Diversity is not just a circumstance here,” he said. “It’s something we value. It’s part of our mission. We offer something that’s unique—sharing spaces with people who aren’t like you.”

Cooke pointed out that experiencing that kind of change with other students they’ve known for years can make kids more open. “When kids come here with kids who are familiar, they’re often more willing to take the risk to get to know people who are different,” he said. “I see that as a benefit.”

Upbeat on the Future. That Hardy’s enrollment has room to grow, he said, should make it less difficult to maintain its diverse identity. Currently, the school has 393 students. He estimates there’s room for roughly 50 more.

It’s not surprising for a principal to be upbeat about his school, but Cooke is clearly excited about Hardy’s prospects. He said that when he arrived there last year after three years as an assistant principal at Eastern High School, he was struck by the “positivity” of Hardy’s staff.

“I walked into a place where I immediately felt good,” he remembered. Cooke said that he can feel so engaged in the school that it’s sometimes hard to turn off his work life. Some nights, he doesn’t get to his home in Petworth until 8:30 pm or later. And, with a two-year-old and a four-month-old, he can’t, once there, exactly retire quietly for the evening with his wife, Soma Saha. “Sleep can be a challenge,” he conceded.

Cooke has taught or been a principal at four different schools, including in New York City, but he said Hardy, with its stable staff and “very collaborative feel” has made a particularly strong impression on him. “This is the first school where I’d say, ‘I would send my daughter there.’ I would make that commitment. This is an experience I want my children to have.”