Despite the gray and gloomy January morning, energy ran high in the Hornblower Early Childhood Center as I met with Belleville public schools’ Superintendent Richard Tomko.
In the distance, I could hear the joyous laughter of children playing in the building’s indoor gym, and I was met with a museum of student artwork as we walked to Tomko’s office, which shares space with the center; both are located in a newly renovated old warehouse.
Tomko explains how he stumbled into his career as an educator. It began with a desire to give back as a volunteer football coach to the school system he attended, he tells me. Tomko, whom everyone simply calls “Doc,” soon realized that educational leadership is where he was meant to be. The smile that lights up his face as he shares these stories says it all.
We walk around the “preschool universe,” popping into classrooms where Tomko is met by students and teachers all eager to include him in their instruction. Excitedly, he points out the small details in the building meant to further engage students, like the sensory toys on the hallway walls. Learning happens everywhere, all the time, he insists.
We make our way down the street to BPS’s new indoor training facility, where the students in the 18 to 21-year-old life skills program are racing one another around the track and climbing on the rock wall. The facility, another converted warehouse, is a new resource uniting the school system and the greater community, a connection that Tomko feels passionately about facilitating.
We drive around the corner to Belleville High School, where everyone greets Tomko before he’s even 20 feet through the door. An aroma of cafeteria lunch wafts through; the hallways hum with the chatter of teenagers.
We head upstairs to observe a medical academy field experience class. The class uses Anatomage tables, an interactive anatomy visualization system—a tool that will uniquely prepare them for careers in the medical field.
The bell rings a familiar tune and we’re out the door again, this time circling around to the back of the high school, where Tomko is expanding the school’s campus. Recently, the district purchased two houses that back up to the school. They’re being utilized by the students in the life skills program, and facilitate critical tasks like cooking and cleaning in a real-world setting.
Somehow, there is still more to see. In the backyard of one of the homes, we check in on the construction of a new greenhouse. It will serve as yet another distinctive hands-on learning experience for Belleville’s students. And, just above our heads, a small silent windmill generates renewable energy for the school and doubles as another educational resource for students.
When we return to Tomko’s office, I notice the degrees hanging on his walls. He never stopped going to school himself.
But what he chooses to point to are the signed footballs and artwork from previous students, and the photos of his family. As a man of great stature with an important leadership position and several degrees, Tomko could be intimidating—but he carries himself with great humility and approachability.
You can tell that he just loves what he does.