One proud principal

Reading: A man of high energy and expectations is propelling a Baltimore school toward success.

September 05, 1999|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

Early Monday morning, 438 children plunge through the big blue doors of Thomas Johnson Elementary School.

Six-year-olds who had never read a word before open books. Custodians roam, leaving behind spotless carpets, gleaming hallways and perfumed bathrooms.

"Great first day!" the principal crows.

Teachers say, "Tom, it's like we never left."

How could they not have a great day? Tom Bowmann again has them in his sphere.

Two years ago, Thomas Johnson Elementary School had no librarian, almost two-thirds of the children read below grade level, and neighborhood vandals had destroyed the playground.

Shirtless, shoeless children dawdled on stoops and played outside corner pubs on Light Street when they should have been in school.

A lackluster school at the heart of a South Baltimore neighborhood, Thomas Johnson employed a number of teachers who had lost heart, educated plenty of children whose intellects were underestimated, and failed to engage many parents who had already struggled against poverty and their own twists of fate.

But in the summer of 1997, a 46-year-old man with a muscular build and strawberry blond hair showed up with an astonishing dream.

No one knew what to make of the new principal.

"It's ITAL wonderfulend ital!" he would sing.

Yes, sometimes he also sang his words -- in italics!

Here was a man who heard timpani in the hallways, surging cellos in the classrooms.

And today, like many days, before the bell rings, he will hear music in the voice of a child.

`He's always around'

On the Friday before school started, Bowmann scooted around the building like a fullback.

Custodians complained privately, "He's always around!"

Teachers tidying up for their guests watched with the detached manner of cats. They, at least, had grown accustomed to him.

Last year, in fact, one of them kept track of his many passes by her door with marks on the blackboard, which she called TBS (Tom Bowmann Sightings), and over time used them to teach her children statistics.

Outside, the afternoon dragged on. A parent discovered a junkie's discarded needles at the entrance where kindergartners would queue up Monday. A gang of boys, stripped to their shorts, played cards by the curb around the corner.

Bowmann knew the boys, the streets and the games. He knew so much that merely anticipating the new year left rings of sweat blotting his purple polo shirt.

"Am I nervous?" he asked, lifting his arms.

The first open house for parents would begin at 4 p.m.

But Bowmann was also laughing because he knew Thomas Johnson Elementary had made the first transition into a new world, his italicized world, an active verb world, a world of exclamation points.

A literate world.

His teachers already knew. A few days earlier, when he called a surprise meeting in the cafeteria, he had ushered them to tables gracefully set with champagne flutes and doilies and flowers and one bottle of, as he would say, nonalcoholic champagne.

The latest reading scores from the spring had arrived, he said, and Thomas Johnson Elementary had nearly doubled its percentage of pupils reading at grade level or above. At 66 percent, the school placed just below the city's best.

Then he said, "I want somebody at each table to pop the cork because I need to toast you."

It seemed as if they had barely finished the first few sips when he said, "OK now. We've just started to work."

This, in fact, was big news and explained why he had been running around preparing to greet parents with his knuckle-cracking handshake.

As he hustled for the open house, a Mozart symphony was playing over the sound system: timpani, cellos.

A blue-collar background

For some people, a life's vocation can be like a homecoming, a rediscovery of roots or a clearer expression of family mission.

Bowmann's father never graduated from high school.

His grandfather ran a truck brokerage business.

"Am I from a blue-collar background?" Bowmann says. "Absolutely, absolutely!"

Whatever spark that was derived from those few facts propelled him from his family home on Virginia's Eastern Shore with an unusual amount of drive and grit.

His career began traditionally with a sixth-grade teaching job not far from his birthplace in Northampton County, Va.

After five years, he moved on for a master's degree in education at Maryland's Salisbury State University, then leaped into an assistant principalship in Lynchburg, Va., and continued graduate training.

The next move took him to Salisbury, where he settled in for 11 years as principal at Pemberton Elementary School.

In 1995, he went to Baltimore County as principal of Seven Oaks Elementary in Perry Hall, a place, he says, "where the kids are well-read, the parents are wonderful, and inspiration comes from every direction."

So what happened? How did a man delivered to the helm of an exceptional school come to the mean streets of South Baltimore?

"I am a teacher," he says, simply.

In the spring of 1997, Bowmann moved his belongings to the city's Otterbein neighborhood, a few blocks from Thomas Johnson's front door.

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