Principal transfers, school transformed

Improvement: Challenged to turn around one of the city's most troubled schools, an educator from the suburbs brings energy and leadership to the job.

March 11, 2003|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Sixth-grader Markisha Gill has been called to the principal's office at Hamilton Middle School. Even as she fidgets apprehensively outside Stephen Gibson's door, she doesn't have a bad word to say about the man who will soon chasten her or about the teacher who sent her there.

In fact, Markisha's only problem so far with the Northeast Baltimore school is ... eighth-grade boys.

"They play too much," said Markisha, 12.

Problems at Hamilton haven't always been so benign.

For years, the middle school battled issues far worse than clumsy adolescent dating rituals. Long-timers can rattle off a long list of grievances: The building was dirty and unsightly, test scores were alarmingly low, leadership was a vague concept and discipline problems were out of control.

"This school was off the hook," said eighth-grader Katiana Anderson, who admits she ran wild as a Hamilton sixth-grader and skated through the seventh grade with minimal effort.

But this year is different.

Parents, teachers, students and others all agree that conditions at Hamilton have greatly improved. And they mostly agree on the reason - Gibson, the new principal.

"We're further ahead now than where we've ever been," said technology support teacher Perry DeMarsico. "And we have Mr. Gibson to thank for that."

Gibson, who was a principal in a successful Howard County middle school before coming to Hamilton, is one of three administrators who were hired by the state Department of Education to turn around troubled city schools.

The three Distinguished Principal Fellows were selected by state schools superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick last summer for their "sterling qualifications, proven track record and willingness to apply their skills in the most challenging setting."

The others, Eileen Copple at Johnston Square Elementary and Edward Cozzolino at Brehms Lane Elementary, are doing well at their missions, Grasmick said. But Gibson is the clear standout.

"He has transformed Hamilton," Grasmick said. "I took [Mayor Martin O'Malley] there at the opening of school. He could not believe it."

Katiana said this is nothing like her first two years in middle school.

"It's improved for the better," she said. "Now it's quieter; the hallways are quieter. We get more extra-curricular activities. The work is harder."

Gibson's plan when taking over the school was methodical:

First, improve the aesthetics. Then, change the students' attitudes. Next, make the academics more rigorous. Finally, create a cohesive team of leaders to keep the school steady on its upward-moving path.

Each piece of the reinventing was equally vital, Gibson said.

"By improving the facilities here, he's making sure the school looks like a school and feels like a school," said Monica Williams-Truitt, an in-house teacher mentor. Where the school was dark, Gibson had lights installed. Falling ceilings were replaced. Classrooms were painted. Lobby showcases were cleaned and decorated.

Force in neighborhood

Gibson unequivocally enforces the school's uniform policy, for the first time in years, students said. He wakes early to patrol the neighborhood before school opens, ushering children out of the corner stores and breaking up the loitering on private property.

"He has literally stabilized the neighborhood," Grasmick said. "People were going to sell their homes."

Hamilton's lead custodian, Rachel Cunningham, said she's impressed with the way Gibson contributes to the upkeep of the school - which she says is much cleaner and more under control since his arrival.

"You can see him walking through the halls and if he sees something on the floor, he'll pick it up," she said. "I admire that, for the simple fact that he doesn't think he's too good to bend down and pick up trash."

When it was first announced that a suburban principal would be coming to one of the city's most struggling schools to clean it up and turn it around, some, such as union leaders and political figures, complained that the appointment sent the wrong message: that city administrators weren't good enough to do such a difficult job.

But despite spending more than 10 years in suburban Howard County - the last at the new Lime Kiln Middle, where 71 percent of students scored at a satisfactory level on 2001 statewide tests - Gibson, a product of city schools, says he has a real heart for the city, especially its children.

That's why he is determined to make a difference at Hamilton, where just 11 percent of students scored at a satisfactory level on those same 2001 tests.

"I loved the challenge of leading a school that was one of the top five in the state," Gibson said. "This challenge is equal, but different. My hope is that we'll look at this school and other schools in Baltimore City, and say they're more mirroring some of these county schools."

Expecting success

Gibson is optimistic that even more can be accomplished.

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