Changing of the guard

Managing Assistant Principal Nicholas D'Ambrosio poses for a photo in front of Roland Park Elementary/Middle School. (Staff photo by Jen Rynda / August 20, 2012)

Late last summer, Nicholas D'Ambrosio was about to settle into his fourth year as assistant principal of Roland Park Elementary/Middle School when he got a career-altering call.

The school system wanted him to be interim principal of a school on the other side of the city, Francis Scott Key Elementary/Middle in south Baltimore.

"It was a learning curve," said D'Ambrosio, 32. "But I had a team there was helpful with that transition."

Late this summer, the school system threw D'Ambrosio another curve. D'Ambrosio, who applied for the principal's job at Francis Scott Key, did not get it, but was transferred back to Roland Park, this time to lead his old school as its interim principal, following the sudden retirement of six-year principal Carolyn Cole in June.

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The decision by Cole, who had been a mentor to D'Ambrosio, was unexpected and came later than usual for retirement announcements, forcing the school system to scramble for a successor.

"I think a lot of people were surprised," D'Ambrosio said. "I wasn't informed of the position until mid-to-late July."

Now, as the school system convenes a panel of parents and educators to help choose a permanent successor to Cole, D'Ambrosio, 32, is settling into his temporary role as Roland Park's managing assistant principal, a term the school system uses for an interim principal.

Most pressingly, on the cusp of the school year that starts Aug. 27 for students, he was trying to fill two staff positions, for a science teacher and a social studies teacher, at the school of 1,275 students.

D'Ambrosio, of Severn in Anne Arundel County, said his understanding is that he will be Roland Park's interim leader for the entire school year, because finding a new principal could take months.

"That process takes time," he said. "I'm pretty sure that's why (the school system) went with an interim. I'm preparing to be here this year."

The diplomatic D'Ambrosio wouldn't say whether he plans to apply for the Roland Park principal's job.

"I am intensely focused on continuing the high standards for students at Roland Park," he said with a grin.

On Monday morning, which was the start of the school year for staff, about 75 teachers giggled like children in Roland Park's multi-purpose room as D'Ambrosio asked them to draw a pig on a piece of paper.

"If you don't have a pen, raise your hand," he said.

According to studies, how they drew their pig defined them, D'Ambrosio said. If they drew it at the top of the paper, they were positive, optimistic people, and if they drew it in the middle, they were realists. If they drew it at the bottom, they were pessimistic and negative. If they drew it on the left, they were traditionalists and friendly people, and if they drew it on the right, they were innovators. If they drew it with large ears, they were good listeners and if they drew it with fewer than four legs, they were "going through a period of great change," he told the teachers.

D'Ambrosio drew his peg on the left, and said, "I believe in tradition. I think I'm friendly."

He also drew his pig with only two legs.

D'Ambrosio, an 11-year veteran of the school system, is used to change. A physical education teacher by training, he started out at George Washington Elementary School in Pigtown, then jumped to Gilmor Elementary/Middle, a city-funded charter school in Sandtown, before joining Roland Park as physical education teacher in 2005.

While there the first time around, he earned a master's degree in education in 2007, with a focus on administration, from what is now Loyola University Maryland.

Now, he's back, taking the reins of Roland Park at a time when it is almost purely a neighborhood school for its 615 in-zone elementary school students. The elementary school has expanded to its full capacity, with four homerooms for each grade level, he said.