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.
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.
The middle school too is growing, with Ingenuity and Advanced Academics magnet programs. It's also a feeder school for students from Medfield Elementary, a school near Hampden for students in kindergarten through fifth grade, D'Ambrosio said.
"I'm excited to be here," he told the Messenger. "It's been such an easy transition. I know people. There has not been a major staff turnaround. I know the strengths and weaknesses of the school."
One of its weakness was solved last week, when the aging building was closed for two days to install central air-conditioning.
Academically the school is strong, with average scores on state-mandated reading and math tests in the top 10 of all city public schools — 93.9 percent in reading and 86.5 percent in math in 2011, both slight increases over the previous year's percentages, he said. But there is room for improvement, especially in math, which typically lags behind reading citywide, he said.
"We want to look at our data down to the individual student and make sure every student does well," D'Ambrosio said. "We want our students to achieve in math the same way they are in reading."
He has no plans to institute middle school recess, saying he agrees with Cole's policy, which some parents have protested. Supporters of middle school recess say it's important because it gives the school's 660 children in sixth through eighth grades a much-needed break from academics during the day.
Cole said last year she was open to the idea of middle school recess during lunchtime, but not to the notion of restructuring the school day around a 25-minute recess. Baltimore City school board commissioner Bob Heck, a Roland Park parent, said last year that the issues were scheduling, staffing and safety, and questioned whether there was enough manpower to safeguard children at a daily recess.
"It's a staffing issue," D'Ambrosio agreed. "If we could, we would."
At least for now, whether he is the interim or permanent principal at Roland Park is unimportant, he said.
"I'm being held accountable as any principal would," he said. "If a school leader's vision doesn't match up with the needs of the parents, the students and the staff, it's not going to go anywhere."
On Monday, he told the teachers he wants them to be reflective, collaborative, focused on the big picture, open to feedback, punctual, professional, and above all, supportive of students and parents.
"Everybody is here to support children at Roland Park," he said.