One proud principal; Reading: A man of high energy and expectations is propelling a Baltimore school toward success.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Early Monday morning, 438 children plunge through the big blue doors of Thomas Johnson Elementary School.

Six-year-olds who had never read a word before open books. Custodians roam, leaving behind spotless carpets, gleaming hallways and perfumed bathrooms.

"Great first day!" the principal crows.

Teachers say, "Tom, it's like we never left."

How could they not have a great day? Tom Bowmann again has them in his sphere.

Two years ago, Thomas Johnson Elementary School had no librarian, almost two-thirds of the children read below grade level, and neighborhood vandals had destroyed the playground.

Shirtless, shoeless children dawdled on stoops and played outside corner pubs on Light Street when they should have been in school.

A lackluster school at the heart of a South Baltimore neighborhood, Thomas Johnson employed a number of teachers who had lost heart, educated plenty of children whose intellects were underestimated, and failed to engage many parents who had already struggled against poverty and their own twists of fate.

But in the summer of 1997, a 46-year-old man with a muscular build and strawberry blond hair showed up with an astonishing dream.

No one knew what to make of the new principal.

"It's ITAL wonderfulend ital!" he would sing.

Yes, sometimes he also sang his words -- in italics!

Here was a man who heard timpani in the hallways, surging cellos in the classrooms.

And today, like many days, before the bell rings, he will hear music in the voice of a child.

'He's always around'

On the Friday before school started, Bowmann scooted around the building like a fullback.

Custodians complained privately, "He's always around!"

Teachers tidying up for their guests watched with the detached manner of cats. They, at least, had grown accustomed to him.

Last year, in fact, one of them kept track of his many passes by her door with marks on the blackboard, which she called TBS (Tom Bowmann Sightings), and over time used them to teach her children statistics.

Outside, the afternoon dragged on. A parent discovered a junkie's discarded needles at the entrance where kindergartners would queue up Monday. A gang of boys, stripped to their shorts, played cards by the curb around the corner.

Bowmann knew the boys, the streets and the games. He knew so much that merely anticipating the new year left rings of sweat blotting his purple polo shirt.

"Am I nervous?" he asked, lifting his arms.

The first open house for parents would begin at 4 p.m.

But Bowmann was also laughing because he knew Thomas Johnson Elementary had made the first transition into a new world, his italicized world, an active verb world, a world of exclamation points.

A literate world.

His teachers already knew. A few days earlier, when he called a surprise meeting in the cafeteria, he had ushered them to tables gracefully set with champagne flutes and doilies and flowers and one bottle of, as he would say, nonalcoholic champagne.

The latest reading scores from the spring had arrived, he said, and Thomas Johnson Elementary had nearly doubled its percentage of pupils reading at grade level or above. At 66 percent, the school placed just below the city's best.

Then he said, "I want somebody at each table to pop the cork because I need to toast you."

It seemed as if they had barely finished the first few sips when he said, "OK now. We've just started to work."

This, in fact, was big news and explained why he had been running around preparing to greet parents with his knuckle-cracking handshake.

As he hustled for the open house, a Mozart symphony was playing over the sound system: timpani, cellos.

A blue-collar background

For some people, a life's vocation can be like a homecoming, a rediscovery of roots or a clearer expression of family mission.

Bowmann's father never graduated from high school.

His grandfather ran a truck brokerage business.

"Am I from a blue-collar background?" Bowmann says. "Absolutely, absolutely!"

Whatever spark that was derived from those few facts propelled him from his family home on Virginia's Eastern Shore with an unusual amount of drive and grit.

His career began traditionally with a sixth-grade teaching job not far from his birthplace in Northampton County, Va.

After five years, he moved on for a master's degree in education at Maryland's Salisbury State University, then leaped into an assistant principalship in Lynchburg, Va., and continued graduate training.

The next move took him to Salisbury, where he settled in for 11 years as principal at Pemberton Elementary School.

In 1995, he went to Baltimore County as principal of Seven Oaks Elementary in Perry Hall, a place, he says, "where the kids are well-read, the parents are wonderful, and inspiration comes from every direction."

So what happened? How did a man delivered to the helm of an exceptional school come to the mean streets of South Baltimore?

"I am a teacher," he says, simply.

In the spring of 1997, Bowmann moved his belongings to the city's Otterbein neighborhood, a few blocks from Thomas Johnson's front door.

At last, he lived close enough to walk.

Evidence of his influence

When parents and children arrived for the open house that Friday afternoon, he had changed into a clean white shirt.

Nearly every room they stepped through showed evidence of the changes wrought under his watch.

He had hired a student from the Maryland Institute, College of Art to paint huge storybook murals on bland cafeteria walls.

He had persuaded a local florist to donate vases and flower arrangements for all the dining tables.

He had asked Hands On Baltimore, an agency that finds volunteers for worthy projects, and Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse construction company to donate their services, and got a renewed playground, repaired tennis court and new basketball goals.

He had turned to Christ Lutheran Church to start an after-school reading program.

The library was now stuffed with $18,000 worth of new books purchased with a combination of local, state and federal grants.

The computer lab -- once equipped with aged, broken-down computers -- contained 32 up-to-date computers with 17-inch monitors, which he managed to get as a gift from the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission in Washington.

He recently won a $370,000 technology grant from the state to install audio and video equipment in every classroom with immediate connections to the Internet.

At a school that could not afford a librarian two years ago, its principal had learned to go everywhere for help.

"We're beneath nothing here, believe me," he will say.

At the same time, he was not simply outfitting the school with new equipment. He had raised reading to the level of messianic purpose.

In the first year, he went on a recruiting spree and hired eight new teachers, including a librarian and a woman who had been named Teacher of the Year in Texas.

Under his influence, teachers agreed to sacrifice their one planning period every day to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio of 28-to-1 to 22-to-1. Bowmann snared a dozen student teachers from local colleges, and the ratio, in several classrooms, dropped to 10-to-1.

His strategy unfolded without apologies.

Every morning at 6: 30, a dozen children were roused from bed by a call from their principal, who told them to wake up and get to school.

Later in the morning, he went into classrooms to collect the names of absentees, then drove to homes of the tardy and whisked them to school.

At night he would call selected children to ask whether they had done their homework. Some nights he searched the alleys to see which children had taken up with bad characters.

He copied names brazenly scrawled in graffiti on the school building, took his list to city police and insisted that they find the miscreants and bring them back to erase their damage.

He implored local arts groups to create weekly residencies for musicians and artists.

He persuaded the owner of a neighborhood diner to give a monthly pizza dinner to any child at Thomas Johnson with perfect attendance. Then he started posting each child's attendance record on the wall outside his office.

He found funds to start a class for 4-year-olds, then another class for 3-year-olds.

The ultimate goal, he would joke, is "to get them as soon as they come home from the hospital."

But most important, he kept the data out front -- 63 percent of the children were reading below grade level -- and he never let the parents or teachers forget it.

Bowmann surveyed every child in the school in the spring of 1998: Do you like to read? What do you read? When do you read?

Sixty-seven percent of the first-graders said they liked to read.

Only 12 percent of fifth-graders agreed.

"Whoa, folks! This is not a kid issue!" he told his staff. "This is a teaching issue. What are we doing? Something is wrong here."

When he realized the teachers couldn't work any harder, he took a dramatic step.

He went to the management of the Baltimore Orioles.

By the time he appeared to make his appeal for help, Bowmann had honed it with a year-long streak of successful supplication.

"Julie," he said to Julie Wagner, the baseball team's community relations director, "Julie, we need help. We're right here in your back yard; less than 37 percent of our kids read on grade level."

He showed her the survey and test scores.

"Give us 550 tickets," he said.

She hesitated. He begged.

"Just this one time. Just once. We need this to motivate our kids. We have to compete. Please, please."

After deliberations, the Orioles agreed last fall to give 550 tickets to Thomas Johnson Elementary, and Bowmann added one proviso: To get the tickets, the children had to read 8,000 books by April 30.

Pitcher Sidney Ponson and the Oriole Bird attended the big book-reading kickoff. Throughout the year, Bowmann held contests so the top reader in each grade would receive autographed baseballs from the Orioles.

Teachers conducted raffles to give away extra tickets, and when the kids passed their goal, Bowmann withheld the news and kept baiting, "You're not quite there yet, you're not there yet!"

In the end, the children read 11,232 books.

On May 6, 428 pupils and parents lined up in front of Thomas Johnson Elementary. With a police escort, the Oriole Bird, banners and a convertible -- on loan for the event -- they paraded up barricaded streets to the ballpark.

Shop owners along the route came out of their stores and applauded.

"In the end," Bowmann said, "the tickets were minor. I mean, in the Orioles arena, it's minor. But the message sent to our children and teachers and parents said, here is an investment. Here is an organization willing to take a risk on children and changing the way they perceive themselves as young scholars."

At the end of the year, he re-administered the reading survey at school and, to everyone's surprise, 87 percent of the fifth-graders said they liked to read.

Today when he recalls that day, Bowmann's eyes fill with tears.

"The children's comments ," he says, choking, "they this is a certain amount of emotion I've got to tell you this. We brought them all together with the banners and kids kept coming up to me 'Mr. Bowmann! Mr. Bowmann! We can read! We can read!' "

This is the new world of Thomas Johnson Elementary, he told parents at this year's open house, flashing last year's reading scores on a screen in the cafeteria.

"This is pretty spectacular," he said. "But I want you to know, this will only reinforce our efforts."

End of the beginning

At 2: 15 Monday afternoon, the first school day of 1999 is nearly done.

A large circle of children bounces balls in the gymnasium. A distraught kindergartner is howling for mommy in the office.

Second-graders are reading in unison, the president of the parent-teacher organization directs construction on the playground, and the entire school has successfully completed its first fire drill.

The principal slips in and out of rooms as quietly as a burglar.

Tonight he will call every teacher and thank him or her for a good day. A few children will hear from him tonight, too, when he calls to see whether they've done their homework.

A small gap-toothed child walks toward him in a second-floor hallway.

Bowmann squats, and smiles.

"How do you like your new school, sweetie?"

The girl returns the smile, doesn't stop, merely turns her head, beaming.

"I'm learning to read!" she says. "I know the story!"

Bowmann turns to a visitor, standing nearby, his face as red as if he's been kissed by a fairy.

"Did you hear what she said!" he exclaims. "Did you hear what she said! Yes! Yes!"

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