`I believe every kid can learn'

Stephen O. Gibson : Hamilton Middle

The Principals : Challenge In The City

July 18, 2002|By Laura Cadiz and Jamie Smith Hopkins | Laura Cadiz and Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

For weeks Stephen O. Gibson grappled with the decision to apply for the fellowship program. He loved Lime Kiln Middle School, which he affectionately dubbed "my baby," but he knew Baltimore schools have been struggling.

He said he faced the nagging question, "Can I give back more than I'm actually giving right now?"

He decided he could.

"I truly believe that every kid can learn, and we have to find ways to make that happen," he said in an interview yesterday at Lime Kiln.

When Gibson leaves the southern Howard County school, where 71 percent of the pupils scored at a satisfactory level in 2001 statewide testing, he'll be heading to Hamilton Middle School in Northeast Baltimore where 11 percent scored at that level.

Gibson, 47, graduated from Baltimore's Polytechnic Institute in the early 1970s - a time when he said the city district was the "elite public school system in Maryland, period."

He doesn't attempt to analyze why Baltimore schools have declined since then. He simply says that he's certain that they are full of outstanding teachers, staff and students, and promises to do everything he can to help them reach their potential.

If anyone can steer a city school to a brighter future, it's Gibson, his Howard County admirers say. "He's a natural for that position," said Roger Plunkett, assistant superintendent for school administration in Howard.

Gibson's colleagues say he is always seeking a challenge.

While principal of Patapsco Middle School in Ellicott City from 1990 to 1999, he turned an under-performing older school into a high-tech achiever, bringing in computers and training teachers to use them daily. He has been Lime Kiln's first and only principal - the school opened in 1999 - which meant he had to start from scratch with teachers and children who didn't know each other.

Teachers say he's a great boss, a firm disciplinarian who regularly works 12-hour days so he can attend school concerts, sit in on parent-orientation meetings, or simply be on hand when buses bring kids back from a late field trip.

"He'd be just a great person for initiating change," said Sue Ann Tabler, executive director of the Maryland Association of Secondary School Principals, a former Howard County principal. "The bottom line for him is what's best for kids."

He loves to connect with pupils, his admirers say.

He will shed his suit jacket, push up his sleeves and play pick-up basketball games with pupils during recess and after school. He'll step in as the engine when the kids do the locomotion at a school dance.

Gibson already knows something about Baltimore's students. For about five years in the mid-1990s, he participated in a Saturday program that helped inner-city children learn African-American history, math, social studies and reading.

The students asked critical questions, he said, showing they were thinking at high levels that hadn't fully been tapped.

"Some of the brightest kids I'd ever met were in the city of Baltimore," said Gibson, who lives in Randallstown with his wife, Linda. "And that message is not always out there."

Education has been a constant star for Gibson's family. His father, Nathaniel Gibson, began teaching natural sciences in 1948 at Harriet Tubman High School, which was a segregated school for Howard County's black students. In 1965, his father became the county's first black principal, at Waterloo Middle School. Nathaniel Gibson died in 1994.

Gibson's brother, also named Nathaniel Gibson, is principal at Arundel High School. His sister, brother and sister-in-law also have taught in Howard County.

Gibson's two daughters are in college. Crystal, 18, is a sophomore at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa., and Quiana, 20, is a senior at Morgan State University.

Dave Reck, chairman of Lime Kiln's social studies department, said Gibson is the kind of educator who expects much and gets it. He persuaded the Howard County school system to raise its middle-school standards, an achievement Reck thought would never happen.

Reck - who graduated from Hamilton when it was a junior high in 1971 - was disappointed when he learned his longtime boss will be leaving, but says he understands why Gibson feels compelled to go.

"He will benefit so many kids," Reck said. "They need help there. He's so capable - very capable - I would expect he could turn that place around."

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