When John Thompson was growing up in a blue-collar area of Pittsburgh, he knew he likely wouldn't become a third-generation steelworker.
Buoyed by his father's belief that teaching was an important profession, he took a circuitous route toward education — and he discovered a drive and desire to help the underprivileged and underserved.
Currently, Thompson is assistant principal at Phoenix Center Annapolis, the state's only school that serves students with disabilities from kindergarten through the 12th grade. Recently, he was chosen to become principal of the new Phoenix Academy, a special-education and alternative school for about 240 students that will open next year.
Phoenix Center, now housed in a 1940 building that was once Germantown Elementary, will be discontinued, Thompson said, and the new school will open in a renovated structure that was also part of a Germantown Elementary campus nearby.
The new school will offer instructional intervention and clinical support services for students and families, as well as industry certification and college readiness opportunities. Thompson said the school aims to assist families with everything from public housing to medication prescriptions.
For current Phoenix Center students who are accustomed to a high-ceilinged, dimly lit structure that is still heated with cast-iron radiators, Phoenix Academy means having a school that looks like a school.
"We keep getting leftovers, but at least this time we're getting something that's custom-made for us," said Thompson, speaking at the current school as he tried to get an oversized roller shade on a classroom window to retract so he could point out the new structure.
"We'll have a vo-tech area, and the classrooms [are] being redone. We'll have all the classroom technology that you could ever ask for," he said. "It's really going to be a first-class school."
For Thompson, 40, the job is an important milepost in a career spent reaching out to those who are often overlooked. Before joining the staff at Phoenix Center this year, he was assistant principal at Annapolis High School, where he said more than 45 percent of the student body qualified for free or reduced-price meals. He was part of the school's extensive efforts to improve its test scores.
Thompson said that while he was at the school, he reached out to families by visiting the subsidized housing where they lived, and gave out pencils and backpacks to students.
"The great thing about Annapolis High is that I was really indoctrinated to 'There are no excuses, all kids can learn, and whatever it takes, that's what you have to do.' " Thompson said.
His other jobs have included stints as a rehabilitation counselor in Culpeper, Va., and in the Washington, D.C., area. In those roles, he helped adults with disabilities gain access to goods and services.
He then worked as principal of the Annapolis campus of Pathways Schools, a network of six therapeutic education programs in the Baltimore-Washington area for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities. In Prince George's County, he helped open a Pathways school that offered students support in their efforts to return to traditional high school.
"When the opportunity came to go to Phoenix, I knew the new building was coming," he said. "I knew that students here historically may have been to some extent overlooked. With my background in nonpublic schools, as a counselor and with all the interventions and strategies from Annapolis High, it was a job made for me."
It's an environment in which "some people would probably run off screaming after a half a day," he said. Some students come from impoverished backgrounds and struggle with abandonment by loved ones. Some lash out with curses and threats.
Handling it, he said, takes a combination of setting clear boundaries and working to find the root of the emotions, rather than simply responding with punishment.
"It's a great opportunity to show a kid they can't push you off," Thompson said. "That works with our kids. They've been repeatedly told with words or actions that they're just not good enough. You sometimes have to deal with a couple of choppy weeks to earn that trust and respect, and let them see success."
He tries to be different from the educators he had in Pittsburgh, who "were always right," Thompson said. "It was, 'Sit down, shut up and listen.' I think I've always been empathetic and reasonable [with students], and I look at the bigger picture."
"He's been a great addition this year," said Phoenix physical education teacher Paul Shea of Thompson. Shea, who has worked at the school since 1976, has seen many teachers come and go.
"He's brought some levity to the program," Shea said. "With these types of children, I think it's always good to have a male role model and a male leader in terms of administration, whether it's a principal or vice principal. And he's done a great job fitting in with both the faculty and the students."
Thompson's approach to reaching out to students is one attribute he plans to take with him to the new school.
"It's like that saying, 'Kids don't care how much you know until they know how much you care,' " Thompson said. "You have to have the right disposition to work here. It just works for me."