ELLICOTT CITY, Md. – Stephen Gibson was walking through the school cafeteria when two students came up to him to chat about a book they were reading.
“They told me they thought it was similar to Romeo and Juliet,” he said, laughing. “And then they tried to convince me to let the class take a field trip to see the new Romeo and Juliet movie.”
Coming to Patapsco Middle School as principal seven years ago, Gibson sought to foster a family atmosphere and to make himself accessible to staff, students and parents. He also wanted to make improvements academically and technologically.
Teachers, students and a national principals’ organization say he has exceeded expectations.
“Anyone can go and talk,” said Cindy Dupski, a home economics teacher who has been at Patapsco for 22 years. “He’ll stop in the middle of what he’s doing to talk to you.”
Gibson, 41, was recently recognized by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, which joined MetLife in naming him principal of the year for 1995-’96.
The middle school only had two computers, used for administrative purposes, when Gibson arrived. Students weren’t benefitting from the computer revolution.
Patapsco now has more than 100 Macintosh and IBM computers, with a new lab that is accessible to students and teachers.
“I can’t keep up with [the teachers] now,” he said. “They want their hands on everything technological – the scanners, the Internet, everything.”
Some of the computers and software were donated by local businesses, including Giant and Safeway food stores. Others were paid for with grants from the Board of Education.
Gibson trained teachers in his own office. “He implemented the training and encouraged everyone to do it when it was convenient,” said media specialist Mary Roepecke.
Computers are in place in every classroom and are used for daily assignments and exercises, such as figuring math problems and writing English papers.
Teachers also can reserve the computer lab, which contains 32 computers and a scanner, for their students to do research, learn computer programming or work on assignments.
The middle school was the first school in Howard County to create a page on the Internet’s World Wide Web. Internet experts taught five 8th grade students how to create it.
The page, entitled “Cyberknight” after the school mascot, has information on the school’s history, its schedule and the staff and students. It includes a visual tour of the school. [The page can be viewed at http://www.howard.k12.md.us]
Gibson also has improved classroom space and involved parents in their children’s learning.
A three-year renovation of the 27-year-old building was completed this summer. It added windows and converted open-space classrooms to self-contained classrooms, connected by portable walls.
Before, “it was like a warehouse room with carpeting and blackboards,” said Harriet Spaden, Gibson’s secretary.
Gibson said learning improves in a confined space defined by the teacher.
Having construction for three summers meant no vacation for him. “Having construction in the building is like having construction in your house,” he said.
His efforts to involve parents has yielded remarkable results. A list in the office started with 20 volunteers seven years ago. It now contains more than 200 names of parents, who come in from one to five days a week.
“There is no question that parent involvement, plus strong academic programs,” lead to student success, he said.
The parents work everywhere from classrooms to offices. Liz Phillips, who has been a parent volunteer, a volunteer coordinator and an assistant media specialist, said Gibson wants parents to come, even if their children say they are embarrassed to have them there.
The more the parents are involved, the less their children are embarrassed, Gibson said.
Born into a family of teachers and principals, education is in Gibson’s blood. Although his family thought he would be an engineer, his love for history and people led him to education.
After graduating from the University of Maryland in 1976 in social studies education, Gibson began student-teaching at Patapsco. The Maryland native later taught at Glenwood Middle School before becoming an assistant principal at Harper’s Choice Middle School and at Centennial and Howard high schools.
Students say Gibson has created a community in part by being accessible. “He knows every student,” said Libby Smith, a 13- year-old 8th grader.”
He constantly works at keeping in touch with students. Over the summer, he flips through lists of incoming 6th graders, to learn each of their names. At the beginning of the year, he encourages new students to introduce themselves to him.
“I want to know them for the positive things they are doing, instead of meeting them because they are sent to the office,” he said.
The back wall of his office has six 8th grade class photos, dating back to the year he came to Patapsco. Gibson said he keeps them there so he can remember how much the students have changed.
He points to a student in one of the pictures who transferred to Patapsco after being expelled from another school. The student has made the honor roll in high school and has accepted a full scholarship to Georgia Institute of Technology.
“He said I was the one who straightened him out,” Gibson said.