It was a bullet that flew over his scalp like a warning shot that set Andrae Townsel on a path that would lead him to the leadership of a thriving school system.
The Detroit, Michigan native, who took over as superintendent of Calvert Public Schools this summer, recalled the experience that happened when he was in the ninth grade at the end of the 1990s, waiting at his school to get home from a basketball game when someone with a gun started shooting into the crowd in the parking lot.
“I almost got shot in the head,” said Townsel, who is 38. “The bullet grazed the top of my head.”
This experience, and the fact that he had gone from a straight student in elementary school to an unmotivated middle schooler with poor grades, prompted Townsel to ask his mother if he could go to another school.
That summer, while on a family vacation, Townsel’s mother met a former classmate who was an assistant coach at Motor City’s Cass Technical High School, where students excel in academics and athletics. .
Townsel was growing physically, and his potential as a lineman for the school’s football team was considered by coaches, who viewed his previous academic record as evidence of his academic potential.
Townsel recalled that a sixth-grade teacher encouraged him to return to education.
“He told me he saw a lot of potential in me,” Townsel said. “It stuck in my mind.”
Townsel played football during his senior year at Cass Tech, which earned him a scholarship to Howard University in Washington, D.C.
“While I was in college, I really struggled to put it together because I was [relatively] new to athletics,” Townsel recalled. “I was new to high-level academic performance and really had to buckle up and lock myself in.”
As for what his life would be like after college, Townsel told Southern Maryland News he’s done some serious self-reflection. He said he thought to himself, “I have a really fragile future. I almost got killed in third. Luckily, I had the opportunity to play football at this great high school and win a scholarship for this phenomenal institution. It became a mission for me to put myself on the right trajectory to have a good life. I really put all my eggs in the education basket. I wanted to be a first-round educator.
Townsel said he wanted to help put other young people on the right track. After graduating from Howard in 2007 with a degree in education, he started as a gym instructor in the Washington, DC area.
Townsel began to rise through the ranks, rising from teacher to administrator. When opportunities in other places presented themselves, Townsel and his wife moved to other communities to gain more experience.
He believes his early history of adversity helped make him a successful school administrator.
“A calm sea never made a skilled sailor,” Townsel said. “These experiences have helped me become a very effective youth educator.”
It was late last year when Townsel, who served as superintendent of schools in the Benton Harbor area of Michigan, saw a search firm posting for the superintendent position in the county of Calvert after Daniel Curry’s retirement announcement.
Having lived in Capital Heights in neighboring Prince George’s County, Townsel knew Calvert well.
“A small knit community, a phenomenal education system,” he recalls. “It’s a community where everything is going in the right direction, so it was very appealing. All I know of Calvert was a place I could relate to.
On March 24, majority members of the Calvert School Board voted unanimously to nominate Townsel to succeed the outgoing superintendent effective July 1.
During an interview with Southern Maryland News last week, Townsel indicated that he enjoys the role of presiding over Calvert’s public school system.
“Calvert County is rich in resources,” the superintendent said. “There are a lot of great people working here who have been in the system for a long time. There is a lot of institutional knowledge.
At the school board meeting in July, Townsel had spoken of his intention to emphasize “the three A’s — academics, athletics, and the arts.” It is my hope and goal to improve the student experience using the three A’s.”
Academically, Townsel said her goal will be to “raise the ceiling and the floor at the same time” by giving top-performing students the opportunity to graduate from the International Baccalaureate program, while implementing programs aimed at increasing the skills of the lowest performing students in the system.
As for athletics, Townsel promised to undertake studies to add grass pitches to high schools and improve training and conditioning programs for student athletes. He also told Southern Maryland News that he wants to establish an “esports” program in Calvert, like he did in the Benton Harbor area system. Esports, Townsel said, are competitive video games that teach “critical thinking and problem solving.” Esports stars can win college scholarships, Townsel said.
The arts were another passion for Townsel, who said, “My natural talent is drawing.” The new superintendent said he would like to see the local community invest in the school system’s fine arts, performance and language arts programs.
Townsel confirmed that he met with leaders of the Calvert Education Association and had discussions about the concerns of students having cellphones during teaching time.
“I’m not big on the [proposed] restriction,” Townsel conceded. “When you protect young people, it opens the possibility for rebellion.”
Townsel told Southern Maryland News he thinks a better tactic would be to teach “social media etiquette” and best practices for using electronic devices.
Unsurprisingly, Townsel, who has found himself in danger before, is “big on student safety.”
He praised school liaisons from the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office and school safety advocates and said he plans to focus on training staff and students, with exercises such as active shooting exercises.
“I don’t want to have the mentality [that] “That can’t happen here,” Townsel said.
Earlier this month, a get-together was held at the Prince Frederick campus of the College of Southern Maryland, as Townsel was introduced to the Calvert community.
“The energy in the room was pretty amazing,” school board member Antoine White said of the session.
“Very positive,” was how Pamela Cousins, chair of the school board, described the session. “Everyone is excited about the possibilities.”
In an email to Southern Maryland News, school board member Inez Claggett said Townsel is “dedicated to elevating the skills of the leaders under her supervision to ensure that every student receives the resources they need to succeed. His performance record has revealed creative and innovative programs established for students that have met them where they are, provided access to unprecedented opportunities and challenged the status quo.”
Townsel’s impression of the session was, “Everyone wants the best for Calvert County students. If you want student success, I’ve come to the right place.
With all the voices around him – parents, teachers, students, administrators, school support staff, elected officials and taxpayers – Townsel was asked who he would listen to.
“It’s ‘Team Calvert’, everyone has a voice,” he said. “The goal is to come to a consensus on what the big picture is.”
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