2023 Heart of the School Awards Top 10 Principals
Mark A. Bongiovanni
Curtis Bay Elementary School
Mark Bongiovanni, or Mr. B, as he’s universally known, is in his 6th year as principal of Curtis Bay Elementary School. You only have to be in the school for a moment to feel the love he has for his staff and students (“his Little Blessings”). He creates video morning announcements (find them on YouTube!) starring his dog, Jack, and a deep cast of supporting characters that started during COVID and were so popular they’ve continued now that school is open. These reinforce the school’s core value of kindness and have had the unintended consequence of making him a TV star in the school – kids mob him every time he walks into a classroom. Mr. B has created a school culture focused on “reading, writing and ‘mathing’”, all done with love and kindness.
“I have been in this position at the school for the past 21 years. The morale of the staff and the climate in the building gets better each year since Mr. Bongiovanni took the position as principal.” – Curtis Bay teacher/school staff member
“I can honestly say one of the ONLY reasons I am still teaching is because of Mr. B and his dedication to his staff and students. I have always felt Mr. B has trusted me as an educator and that has meant the world to me.” – Curtis Bay teacher/school staff member
Belmont Elementary School
Tiffany Etheridge is in her 8th year as principal of Belmont Elementary School, but her experiences at the school begin much earlier; her grandmother was librarian of the school when Tiffany was a young girl growing up in the neighborhood. Ms. Etheridge has continued this family feel in the school, as she welcomes in Parent Ambassadors (8 parent volunteers are in the school daily!) and ensures her staff and students feel loved and appreciated. One way she does this is through an emphasis on mental and physical health, with regular mindfulness activities, staff (and community) fitness classes, and providing healthy food options. This effort has resulted not only in Belmont being named one of the Healthiest Schools in America, but also in a decrease in office referrals and double digit gains in each grade level this year on the Amplify ELA assessment!
“She’s never let lack of funds get in the way of her creating opportunities to improve quality of life for the children, their parents and the greater community in which she serves. It’s one of the most dangerous communities in the City of Baltimore and she has turned Belmont Elementary into a safe haven for those residents.” – Belmont school community member
“Ms. Etheridge truly cares about our scholars and they are always put first! She makes all of us feel supported and validated here at Belmont, and I am so glad I get to a be a part of our school family.” – Belmont teacher/school staff member
Elmer A. Henderson: A Johns Hopkins Partnership School
Peter Kannam is in his 5th year as principal of Elmer A. Henderson: A Johns Hopkins Partnership School. Mr. Kannam is a data-driven leader, propelling his students to academic excellence while focusing on tapping into the joy and passion of his students. Under his leadership, Henderson-Hopkins instituted an extended literacy block, utilizing research-based interventions and curricula, and twice weekly in-school tutoring for every student in grades four through eight. In addition, the school is serving the community, with over one million pounds of food distributed since the onset of COVID-19.
“His integrity to give East Baltimoreans a place for high quality education is unmatched. He cares, he’s involved, and he’s present.” Henderson-Hopkins teacher/staff member
“I was very impressed with the gentle giant that Peter has proven to be not only in the school, but to the surrounding neighborhood.” Henderson-Hopkins school community member
Walter P. Carter Elementary/Middle School
Brandon Pinkney is in his 5th year as principal of Walter P. Carter Elementary/Middle School (and 8th overall). Mr. Pinkney is a leader who prides himself on never forgetting what it was like to be a teacher, which would be hard for him to do, since he still teaches a section of 6th grade ELA! Grounded in his belief in staff wholeness, he creates space for teachers to thrive, and their love manifests itself in their 97% attendance rate. It is also showing up in school achievement data, as they’ve already exceeded their 22-23 end of year goals in ELA and are nearly there in mathematics – after just half a year!
“Mr. Pinkney is the epitome of what leading with LOVE looks like. He reminds us that he loves us daily and shows in his leadership style. Walter P. Carter certainly feels like HOME, thanks to the efforts of Mr. Pinkney.” – Walter P. Carter teacher/school staff member
“Mr. Pinkney makes sure we feel appreciated all the time and we receive support when we need it. We are expected to meet his high expectations, but he allows us to make classroom level decisions and doesn’t micro manage us.” – Walter P. Carter teacher/school staff member.
The Baltimore Polytechnic Institute
Jacqueline Williams is in her 12th year as director of the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. As a distinguished alumna of Poly, Director Williams has pushed the school towards excellence. When she took the position of director, Poly was ranked outside of the top 1000 STEM high schools in the nation. Her goal was to reach the top 100, which was exceeded in 2020 when Newsweek ranked it number 36! She attributes this growth to a focus on small group, differentiated instruction – a significant shift for the school made possible by her relationships and the respect her staff has for her.
“Ms. Williams is an extraordinary principal and person. I have had the pleasure of working with her for the past 17 years. She exudes compassion, dedication, and leadership skills that should serve as a model for those in positions of leadership.” – Poly teacher/school staff member
“I am a proud alumna, and even prouder to have had the opportunity to have her as a guide from my first experience at Poly in 2009. Ms. Williams is synonymous with incredible reputation of the school itself. The school is transformed by her presence and the respect that is held for her goes beyond those she watches over today.” – Poly graduate
Charm City Virtual
Kelly Casagrande is in her 2nd year as principal of Charm City Virtual School. In her first experience as a principal, she faced the daunting task of creating a high-quality virtual learning program from scratch that served the academic needs of students across the city. Her success in doing so is undeniable, and despite the virtual nature of the school, she has also created a true community among her staff and students. This was achieved in part through the in-person events the school holds regularly (with activities often selected and led by their SGA), but also through her steadfast belief in the primacy of relationships.
“Mrs. Casagrande has created an environment that is nurturing, inviting, supportive and exciting to work in. I have never worked with a principal like her [and] I plan to stay with her for as long as I can.” – Charm City Virtual teacher/staff member
“Her leadership should be studied because she is a guide for her staff and her positivity is infectious! She held a Fall Gratitude Festival; EVERYTHING was well organized! I felt safe and that was essential!!! I thank God for her!” – Charm City Virtual parent
Harlem Park Elementary/Middle School
Venus Jackson is in her 3rd year as principal of Harlem Park Elementary/Middle School. Ms. Jackson is a master of relationship-building, continually bringing in partners to meet the needs of her students. Through these partnerships and by maximizing the funding available to her, she has rapidly transformed the school physically (all interiors repainted and now covered with art) and strategically (every classroom has technology that is used daily). These have resulted in a massive change for the school, with enrollment growing from 246 to 382, and ELA MCAP scores on the rise.
“Principal Venus Jackson loves her school community and this is evident the minute you walk through the doors of Harlem Park EMS. She cares, loves her students, and believes they deserve the best.” – Harlem Park school partner
“For Ms. Jackson, her appointment to Harlem Park is a calling, not just a profession. She fully understands her assignment, and treats each of her students as the precious gift they are.” – Harlem Park school partner
Morrell Park Elementary/Middle School
Nichelle Johnson-Walker is in her 11th year as principal of Morrell Park Elementary/Middle School. Mrs. Johnson-Walker, is known as “the student whisperer”, and students frequent her office throughout the day to confide in her and work through challenges they are facing. Her ability to listen and relate have been honed over her decades of work in the district, serving as a para, teacher, instructional support team lead, assistant principal and now principal. Mrs. Johnson-Walker sees Morrell Park as a family, and all her students as her children.
“I have been in Baltimore City Schools for over 25 years and am on my 9th principal. The old saying, “we saved the best for last,” is very true for my experiences with administrators. Mrs. Walker is by far the best principal I have ever worked with due to her leadership skills and style.” – Morrell Park teacher/school staff member
“Mrs. Walker exemplifies caring and kindness. She demonstrates high ethical and moral standards in everything she does. She is a role model to me and many others. She loves her job and we love her.” – Morrell Park teacher/school staff member
Cecil Elementary School
Aleesha Manning is in her 6th year as principal of Cecil Elementary School, and her 20th at the school. Her dedication to the school has made her a pillar with staff, students (many of whom are children of her past students) and the community. Under her leadership, she’s placed an emphasis on giving her students new experiences, and last year instituted Experience Day, a day in which every student in the school went on a field trip around Baltimore (they’re off to DC this year). She loves her students as her own, and it shows in all her actions.
“She brings life to the school. She gives 1000% every day and her energy is unmatched. Ms. Manning has spent nearly half her life at Cecil and the children and their families have become her family.” – Cecil school partner
“She differentiates for every child, and does not make any single student feel stigmatized by a circumstance, ability or diagnosis. She takes in everyone and she makes them feel valued.” – Cecil parent
City Neighbors High School
Cheyanne Zahrt is in her 7th year as principal of City Neighbors High School. Her focus is on creating a school environment where each student is truly seen and understood as an individual, and then provided with learning opportunities that align to their needs and interests. This is facilitated by City Neighbors High’s advisory system, which places students into small peer groups led by a teacher that remain stable over the four years of high school, and their deep arts integration in all subject matter. Relationships are at the heart of making City Neighbors High Schools’ motto a reality – a school where “Every Student is Known, Loved, and Inspired.”
“My principal treats all her kids like her own and even has special bonds with everyone. She also tries her best to make everyone feel comfortable and welcome. Even during times where I’m upset, I can say that Ms. Zahrt is an amazing listener.” – City Neighbors High School student
“She is a principal who knows the name, family, and story of every student who walks through the door, and of every staff person, too. Even more than knowing, though, is caring. No one cares more deeply or profoundly.” – City Neighbors High School teacher/staff member