Louis D’Ambrosio silently thanks his first-grade teacher, Rose Eckmann, every time he uses chopsticks. During a weeklong unit studying Japan, Eckman tasked her students with practicing using chopsticks to pick up pink erasers from their desks. At the end of the week, Eckmann brought in a hot plate and made the class a meal of ramen, which the students used chopsticks to eat. “Every time my wife and I go out to eat and use chopsticks — she’s probably so sick of me telling that story — but Mrs. Eckmann, I have to thank her.”
Those lifelong lessons and connections — Eckman and D’Ambrosio still exchange Christmas cards — have helped D’Ambrosio build a strong foundation for the students and staff he sees every day at Berry Elementary School. D’Ambrosio, Berry’s principal, was recently named the 2022 Charles County Public Schools (CCPS) Principal of the Year. He went into the field of education to give back. His father passed away when he was young, and he looked to male influences as role models. “I had a lot of positive influences,” he said. “Coaches, my principal in elementary school.”
It wasn’t until he was in high school that his math teacher, Tom Starmack, inspired him to look into teaching as a profession. “I started thinking about it when I was in high school,” D’Ambrosio said. “I had a fantastic math teacher. I wasn’t a strong math guy, but he made me love math.”
Enrolling in Mercyhurst University, where he would play on the Lakers football team, D’Ambrosio started studying to become a math teacher. However, after teaching a math class in a special education classroom, he shifted his plans. He counted his great aunt, who had special needs, as an influence on his interest in special education. Teaching students with special needs amplified his interest. On the advice of an advisor, Phil Belfiore, now the department chair of the graduate program in special education and applied disability studies at Mercyhurst, D’Ambrosio received his bachelor’s degree in elementary education with his master’s in special education.
While studying for his master’s and assistant coaching the Mercyhurst football team, D’Ambrosio worked for a year at Sarah A. Reed Children’s Center in Pennsylvania before attending a job fair. The event boasted representatives from far-flung school systems, including London and Hawaii. What caught D’Ambrosio’s eye was a banner reading “Hiring Teachers and Coaches.” It piqued his interest — D’Ambrosio was looking for teaching and coaching opportunities. He walked over and introduced himself to the late Keith Hettel, who was then the executive director of CCPS human resources.
D’Ambrosio had never heard of Charles County and had no intention of moving to Maryland, but he took a job at Milton M. Somers Middle School as a special education teacher in the emotional adjustment (EA) program. Students’ class sizes in the EA program are designed to be especially small, and D’Ambrosio realized he liked interacting with bigger groups of students. “I wanted a leadership role in reaching more kids,” he said. “I wanted to impact more kids.” He began taking on more responsibilities, including a five-year stint as Somers’s summer Academy coordinator. He was also an assistant football coach for Henry E. Lackey, Maurice J. McDonough, and La Plata high schools.
Following his time at Somers, D’Ambrosio moved to Mt. Hope/Nanjemoy Elementary School, where he split his day — spending half of it as a special education facilitator for IEP meetings and half the day as a vice principal. Before moving to William A. Diggs Elementary School, he was vice-principal at Indian Head Elementary School. Before moving to William A. Diggs Elementary School, he was acting principal for three months in 2014. While at Diggs, D’Ambrosio was named the CCPS Vice Principal of the Year in 2015. He served as principal of Arthur Middleton Elementary School from 2015 to 2018 before moving to Berry Elementary School as principal in 2018.
He credited his success as a principal to others he has known. “I think I’ve been fortunate to be associated with good principals since I started school,” D’Ambrosio said. “While teaching and being an administrator and going to principal’s meetings, I’m surrounded by really good principals. I think that’s been a driving force. I’ve always been around a good leader.”
His peers think that it takes a good leader to know one. “Mr. D’Ambrosio is a problem solver, an innovator, and a dynamic leader,” Michelle Beckwith, principal of Dr. James Craik Elementary School, said. “Mr. D’Ambrosio has a calling in life, and that calling is leadership. He is an excellent role model for all his staff, showing that the students deserve only the best.”
D’Ambrosio said it is the teachers, students, and their families that make Berry a great place to teach and learn. The teachers engage with students, sparking excitement among them in different subjects. “I think that’s what awesome teachers do, and I know we have a ton of them in this building,” D’Ambrosio said. “That’s why I got this award. It has nothing to do with what I do. It’s what the teachers do in this building every day. It’s what the kids do. It’s what the parents do. Them doing it so well makes Berry a great place to be.”
Elam Lofranco, a Berry fifth-grader, said that D’Ambrosio plays a huge role in making the school welcoming and safe. “Because of you, Berry Elementary School is the best,” Lofranco said. “Now I feel smarter because of you and my teachers. You make us feel like we belong at Berry Elementary School. You are also good at being a leader.”
D’Ambrosio continues to build leadership skills outside of school. He is the first CCPS principal to serve as president of the Maryland Association of Elementary School Principals (MAESP) and was appointed to a three-year term by Gov. Larry Hogan to the Professional Standards and Teacher Education Board (PSTEB). The board advises the Maryland State Board of Education on educational issues. D’Ambrosio was a panelist speaking about the importance of student, family, and community engagement during the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education’s National Summit on School Leadership. He was on a student discipline regulation task force through the Maryland State Board of Education, spoke on Capitol Hill during National Principals Month in October 2018, and authored an article, “How Hosting a Pastor’s Breakfast Can Build Community Connections,” for Principal Magazine. The article was based on his experience partnering with Peace Lutheran Church and Good Shephard United Methodist Church while he was Middleton’s principal.
Strengthening connections through being good neighbors is something D’Ambrosio advocates for and supports. “We’re teaching our kids to be good citizens … that’s the goal of education,” he said. “We want to create future leaders and good citizens.” With that in mind, D’Ambrosio is not shy about knocking on the doors of Berry’s neighbors. At the school, he has built a strong partnership with the Rev. Randy Stacks, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Waldorf. “It made sense,” Stacks said. “We are right next door to each other. We were excited to see what we could do for the school.” The church has donated staff appreciation meals, school supplies, and candy for students at Halloween and Easter. Berry staff also fosters partnerships with businesses, including Speedy Carwash, Kona Ice, and Silver Diner.
Mornings at Berry often find D’Ambrosio helping with the car rider line, greeting students by name, and sharing fist bumps and high fives. “The Rodriguez brothers,” he called out one recent, rainy Friday morning as children huddled under shared umbrellas or made a run for it to the school’s entrance. “Grace with the new shoes. Bet you can go super fast in those,” D’Ambrosio said, seeing lights winking from the soles of a girl’s sneakers. He turned to see a group of students making their way toward him. “Here come the Campfield’s,” he said to the four siblings. Soon enough, the staff made their way inside, where D’Ambrosio started morning announcements. Sprinkled among the need-to-know stuff are fun facts and shoutouts students have given staff members and staff has given students.
“He sets the tone for the school,” Erin Loredo, a secretary at Berry, said. “He continues to set the standards for the school by leading by example and putting in the extra effort.”