Deborah Thomas last week presided over her first day as the new principal at Immaculate Heart of Mary School. She's shown working with students on opening day, Aug. 27. (Staff photo by Jon Meoli / September 7, 2012)

Before her first school day as principal at Immaculate Heart of Mary even began, Deborah Thomas knew her new school was a special place.

At a school clean-up event on Saturday, Aug. 25 and Sunday, Aug. 26, Thomas not only arrived to find parents and children waiting to enroll, but saw dozens of families doing "dirty work."

"It was hot and humid," Thomas said. "They were weeding, taking care of the gardens, doing all kinds of things. That really shows the sense of community here. They care about their school enough that this is where they spent their weekend."

The beginning of school marked something of a serendipitous journey from her previous role as assistant principal at Immaculate Conception, one that led her to see the community she has already grown to admire first-hand before making her decision.

Thomas said she was "very comfortable" at Immaculate Conception, but was approaced by some people asking why she hadn't put her name into consideration for the opening at Immaculate Heart of Mary.

First, she had to do a bit of reconnaissance work to the school off Loch Raven Boulevard.

"I came over here and visited at an open house, and nobody knew who I was," she said. "I really liked the school. It was a community, and that's what did it."

Her first goal now that she's taken the school's head job is to become a part of that community, Thomas said.

"What I want to do this year is see and determine, what do we have to do to keep moving forward?" Thomas said. "That is my first thing, to watch, to listen, to pick up what's going on and decide."

Part of that equation, she said, will be professional development.

"I think it's very, very important, preparing our children for the 21st century," she said. "Our goal is to educate them to their greatest potential, and to do that, we have to be up on what the world is like today."

Overall, Thomas said the school is doing well. She said they exceeded their enrollment projections, and had to add a second pre-kindergarten class that quickly filed up.

Combine that news with the clean-up, and you have something of a dream start for Thomas.

"You can't start a school year any better than that," she said. "Our school is filled, our teachers are enthusiastic and excited, and our parents are engaged. They are a part of this community."