Amherst Magazine

City Forever

By Stacey Schmeidel

 

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Baltimore City College High School Principal Joe Wilson '64

It's 7:30 a.m. on a sunny, warm Wednesday in May, and Joe Wilson '64 is waiting to meet the bus. One after another, dozens of public buses pull up at the bottom of a long, grassy hill. Wilson stands in front of an immense Gothic building at the top of the tall rise. Students hurry up the hill, across an expanse of green lawn, rushing to beat the first-period bell. Several greet the principal: "Good morning, Mr. Wilson."

School is in session, and Wilson is in his element.

At a time when urban high schools are getting their fair share of bad press in movies like Dangerous Minds and television shows like Boston Public, this school, the nation's third-oldest public high school, has a graduation rate of nearly 100 percent. Ninety-five percent of its graduating seniors will go on to college, almost all of them electing four-year colleges, including places like Harvard, Yale, Oberlin and Amherst.

But this isn't Choate or Andover. It's Baltimore City College High School—an inner-city magnet liberal arts school enrolling 1,260 students from one of the nation's biggest cities. More than 50 percent of City's students are poor enough to qualify for subsidized lunches. On a weekday morning the rundown streets abutting the campus are crowded with people with nowhere else to go.

Founded in 1839, City has a long and mostly distinguished history, having graduated city and national leaders including former Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke and medicine Nobel laureate Martin Rodbell. The school's status has always been closely linked with that of the city of Baltimore; the awesome gothic building, City's second home, was "built big," with a seven-story tower, in 1928 to inspire civic spirit. As an exam school, City has been able to select its own students, and the school was all-white and all-male until 1954. When the Supreme Court ordered an end to segregated schools, City quickly began admitting African-American boys; girls joined the student body in 1979. Demographically, today's City is about as different from the old City as it could be: 95 percent of the school's students are African Americans, and 60 percent are women.

For all its success, things at City haven't always been easy. The first rough patch came in 1979 when a difficult economy and civic indifference led a select committee to recommend that the decaying campus be closed. City alumni, including a prominent graduate in President Jimmy Carter's Department of Housing and Urban Development, intervened, finding more than $10 million in federal funds to earn the school a reprieve. But by the early '90s things had gone sour again, and the City on the Hill was being derided as the Bump on the Hump. The building was literally crumbling; the roof leaked; there was lead paint in the pipes and on the walls. An evaluation determined that the campus was almost unusable—and City's students joined the proud, 3,000-member alumni body in calling for change.

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Wilson's frequent hallway strolls provide an informal venue for City business

This is where Wilson comes in. A former California legal aid lawyer and civil litigator, Wilson was teaching law at Widener University in Delaware when he was named principal at City in 1994. At that point, his school administrative experience was limited—he'd taught for less than a year at Darien High School shortly after graduating from Amherst, he'd served on the San Jose School Board, and he'd interned as an assistant principal for a year in Delaware. But Wilson says he'd "always dreamed of being Mr. Chips," and when offered the job at the struggling inner-city school he leapt at it. Since then he's led a dedicated group of teachers, parents, alumni and staff who have helped Baltimore City College High School regain its former glory—and who have, more importantly, helped send thousands of Baltimore students to college with the financial aid necessary to support their dreams.

8:00 a.m. Wilson roams the halls, rounding up late arrivals and sending them along to the administrative office to write out copies of the attendance and tardiness policies they've violated.

City's distinguished history—and its proud present—are evident from the moment one enters the building. The long hallways are lined with display cases featuring City authors (including Russell Baker), and the Alumni Hall of Fame just off the lobby displays Cityabilia, including lists of prominent alumni, and names of graduates who've fought in the World Wars. Posters are everywhere: "City is proud of our 471 students who earned Honor Roll status in the second quarter." "City is proud of Anna Friedman, Tennis Player of the Year." "City is proud of Lionel Foster '99, Marshall Scholarship Winner."

City has a lot to be proud of these days. Two years ago, it was one of only 198 schools from across the nation to earn a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence award from the U.S. Department of Education. Last year, the Toronto National Post featured City prominently in a four-part series on "searching for the perfect high school—in Britain, the United States, and across Canada."

City undoubtedly benefits from its magnet-school status. City can select its own students—and it's eager, of course, to enroll those who appear likely to succeed. But City also makes a point of admitting promising students whose preparation is uneven, waiving its admission criteria for fully 25 percent of the student body. And these students graduate from City with nearly the same success as the school's regular admits.

City faculty and staff work hard to make sure that the students excel. The school offers SAT prep courses for students who need extra help, and all students are required to take a year of Latin. Each day, during morning announcements, a new vocabulary word is broadcast over the public address system. Summer reading is required for social studies and English classes, and even the choir holds rehearsals over the summer. During the school year, tough attendance policies are enforced: students who miss too many classes cannot participate in extracurricular activities. Students whose grades dip below a 70 average cannot re-enroll.

"At City, kids are getting an opportunity," Wilson says. "And a lot of kids are being successful."

9:00 a.m. Junior Bernard Douglas (not his real name) sits at a student desk facing the wall in Wilson's decidedly unglamorous office. A large Amherst banner hangs on the wall behind him. Diplomas (B.A., Amherst, 1964; M.S., Penn., 1966; J.D., USC, 1973; M.A., Harvard, 1989) adorn the other walls, along with inspirational posters ("A Community of Caring School, where caring, respect, responsibility, trust and family are lived and learned") and a large color photo of City's award-winning marching band.

Bernard writes quickly and silently, while Wilson in the adjoining central office talks quietly with another student who's just written out 10 copies of City's cell phone policy. ("The Baltimore City Public School System specifically bans the possession of cell phones, beepers and all other electronic communication gear. Staff members shall confiscate such gear in the possession of any student, and the principal or designee shall retain the gear until the end of the semester.")

Wilson returns to his own office with a first-year student whose right arm is in a cast. The boy stands at attention in the center of the room. "Ready?" Wilson asks quietly. The boy nods. "Go," Wilson says. "Students have the responsibility of attending school every day and attending every class," the boy says, reciting the attendance policy that his injured arm prevents him from writing. Wilson nods energetically as the boy recites. "To be marked present on the daily school roll a student must be present in the first class of the day." "Two more sentences to go," Wilson says encouragingly. When the student's memory fails, Wilson asks Bernard to help. Bernard, who's spent the last 15 minutes writing out 10 copies of the same policy, turns around in his seat. "Where'd he leave off?" Bernard asks, clearly familiar with the policy, and he picks up where the younger student stopped. "Unless the lateness is determined at the Attendance Office to be based on a valid excuse," he begins. The younger boy jumps in to resume the recitation and finishes the policy in a rush. "Students who arrive in class after 9:00 may not make up any work missed because of the lateness. Being late without a legal excuse is a violation of the Student Code of Conduct."

"Good," Wilson nods vigorously. "Good. Now let me get you a pass so you can get to class."

Wilson is big on discipline—in part, he says, "because it's often done on the lower levels, and doing it myself helps keep me in touch with the kids. They've come to know that the consequences of being disciplined are important and well-intentioned, if not pleasant," he says. "We set high standards for our students. And because we set high standards for them, they learn to set high standards for themselves. And they can meet those standards if you ask them to."

9:30 a.m. City's college counseling office is mostly quiet. Two sophomores huddle over a computer, reviewing college choices with a software program that helps high schoolers identify schools whose strengths match their interests. Director Dave Gibson teases the girls when their conversation veers away from colleges and toward the topic of boys. "Is this an academic discussion?" he asks with a grin. The girls smile and get back to work.

A former Naval Academy admission director who came to City six years ago, Gibson is a college advisor, not a guidance counselor. The two functions are separate at City; a failed experiment as an Education Alternatives school (that is, a school run by a private firm) led to extra funding for a separate budget and a separate staff. The Education Alternatives program lasted only from 1992 to 1995, but City's alumni convinced authorities to maintain college guidance funding. The additional staffing and ability to focus allow City college counselors to better support students in their college preparations. "We're very lucky," Gibson says. "As a college counselor, I don't have to worry about the crisis intervention work that takes up so much time for so many high school guidance counselors. I'm able to focus on college counseling, and that really helps the kids."

Most City students are the first in their families to consider college, and the collegiate focus begins early in their City tenure. At the beginning of their freshman year at City (students are encouraged to think of themselves in the collegiate—as freshmen, sophomores, etc.), all students take the PSAT; their score serves as a benchmark for the two SAT tests they're required to take before graduating and helps familiarize them with the world of standardized tests, which (like it or not) are an essential part of the college admission process. City holds its own college fair, attracting some 100 colleges and universities to its campus each spring. And City sponsors college tours, sending the entire class each year to a nearby private liberal arts college like Gettysburg or Lebanon Valley, and sending smaller groups to campuses in the mid-Atlantic and New England. The campus visits give City students a sense of college life and encourage them to imagine themselves at schools like Georgetown, UVA and Amherst.

"Our mission," Wilson says repeatedly, "is to help our kids get into college and help them find the money they need to attend." In that regard, City's success rate is good, and getting better. Most students can choose among an average of 3.5 college offers when they graduate—up from 1.5 offers just a few years ago. Gared Davis is attending Cornell next year, turning down offers from Johns Hopkins, Howard and Boston University. Lisa McGraw is going to St. Mary's College in Maryland, having turned down Smith and the University of Pittsburgh. City students will receive an average of $14,500 in financial aid when they start college in the fall. "And these numbers," Wilson says, "really mean something in the life chances of our kids."

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Marcia Flaherty's 1B English class

10:05 a.m. The City cafeteria is tiny—with just 350 seats—so students eat during one of three lunch hours, between 10 a.m and 1:40 p.m. The first lunch hour begins now, and Wilson is off for a swing through the cafeteria.

Walking the City halls with Wilson is a high aerobic workout. His long legs carry him briskly through City's hallways, which are notably free of the litter that normally clutters high school floors. But whenever Wilson spots something on the ground—a stray gum wrapper, a scrap of paper, a large insect (thankfully, dead)—he swoops down to scoop it up. "It's important that the place be clean," Wilson says, "because otherwise it tells students that they're not worth cleaning up for."

Wilson isn't just after trash; he's also looking for baseball caps. They're banned at City, and most students have given up hope of wearing them to school. The occasional exceptions act quickly when they see Wilson coming, hiding the hats with a single swift swipe that eludes all but the keenest observer. Wilson spots them, though, and after just 15 minutes in the cafeteria he's collected three baseball caps. He tells the students that they can retrieve the items from his office at the end of the day. Will they really bother to come pick them up? "Are you kidding?" he says, pointing at the logo on an expensive Atlanta Falcons cap. "This is good stuff. They'll be back."

Onward he rushes through the cafeteria. Students sit at yellow Formica tables (knee-high to a grown-up), laughing and talking in small groups. Wilson greets students as he walks. "Hello, Derrell. Good morning, sweetie." Occasionally, a student will greet the principal first. "Good morning, Mr. Wilson."

Wilson spots half a dozen girls sitting at a lunch table and detours quickly to their bench. Their eyes get big, and they frantically try to hide a deck of cards. Betraying nothing, and in a move straight out of The Godfather, Wilson casually drops one of his newly acquired baseball caps over the cards before the girls have a chance to stash them. He leans his six-foot frame over the table—his big hand on the baseball cap, the baseball cap over the cards. He talks quietly but firmly to the girls, about topics other than cards. They think they've pulled one over on the principal. But two minutes into the conversation he casually lifts up the baseball cap, exposing the deck. The girls gasp—laughing, but caught. Wilson reminds them that cards aren't allowed, then starts to walk away. He looks back quickly. "Don't take them out again!" he warns as he continues his stroll.

It's 10:45 a.m., and a job applicant, Ms. Stevens, is practice teaching in an Advanced English course. The class is small—just eight students (seven are girls), and the desks are arranged in a double-rowed U. Through the classroom's open windows, voices of students in the first lunch group waft up from the courtyard two floors below. Wilson sits in the back row.

At this time of year, Wilson spends nearly 35 percent of his time interviewing and evaluating candidates. City is expanding its Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs (which now involve nearly one third of the student body), and Wilson is working hard to find the best teachers for these advanced classes. He's especially interested in candidates who've gone to excellent schools (he interviews a lot of Amherst grads), and experience teaching IB or AP classes is a real advantage.

Today's teaching candidate, Ms. Stevens, has quickly engaged her students in analysis of a poem with an autumnal theme. "How does this poem make you feel?" Ms. Stevens asks. Hands shoot up: "Sad." "Lonely."

"And what are the words in the poem that make you feel that way?"

Another volley of arms to the ceiling. "'Dark.'" "'Grey.'" "'Cold.'"

Never are fewer than two hands raised—and that's for a teacher these students don't know. Roaming the halls, a visitor spots an occasional classroom where the students aren't involved, fidgeting or resting their heads on their desks. For the most part, though, the classes are spontaneous and lively, with animated professors (to use the City parlance) and engaged, questioning students.

Ms. Stevens divides the students into four groups, then asks each group to rewrite the poem, substituting words that will set a brighter tone. After a few minutes the students read their altered-mood poems: "We walked through the meadow on a bright, summer day."

Because City is a magnet school that competes for talented students, Wilson is eager to find the best faculty. He identifies candidates through traditional channels—but also through Websites like monster.com. And he's working with Carney Sandoe, a prominent "headhunting" firm that also helps colleges and universities identify talented applicants.

It's mid-May, and Wilson knows that his timeline is tight, but he's committed to finding teachers with that extra something that will make a difference to City students. "A lot of things that we do here are ready-fire-aim kinds of things," he admits. "But this helps us find people who might not otherwise think about teaching at an inner-city school like City."

Wilson's approach to hiring is yet another example of his willingness to—maybe penchant for—going outside the system. "It takes enormous amounts of time and energy to make a school work, or to make a school work better," he says, "in a bureaucracy that's most comfortable doing what it's used to doing and very uncomfortable with the notion that what matters most is the school and the students, not the procedures and rules."

As if on cue, the public address system buzzes and Wilson is summoned to the principal's office. It's a phone call from a higher-up who insists that Wilson attend an afternoon meeting.

"I'm afraid I'll have to be out of the office this afternoon," he says quietly, his afternoon plans scuttled.
Before he leaves for the meeting, though, Wilson has a noon discussion with the parent of a student who's struggling. Such meetings are frequent—at least one a day—and often unplanned: City parents, not used to being served, often arrive unexpectedly in Wilson's office and wait until he's free.

Wilson says City parents tend to be involved with their children's education, "but not in the classic, making-cookies way." Many City students come from single-parent or "disassembled" families. "Among City students, the nuclear family is the exception," Wilson says. "Also, our kids come from the lower classes, or the lower-middle classes, so their parents are working two or three jobs, or they're on welfare. The parents aren't hanging around the school, looking for extraneous things to do," Wilson says. "But these parents are desperate for their kids to use City as a tool for a better income, a better life—and in that sense they're very involved."

1:10 p.m. Period 6, and Marcia Flaherty's International Baccalaureate English class is abuzz. Flaherty grades papers at the back of the room while her 20 students cluster in groups of four or five, perched in and on top of clusters of desks. They're talking about books, comparing Wide Sargasso Sea, The Awakening, Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily." This year's syllabus also includes Jane Eyre, Invisible Man, Lysistrata, School for Wives, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Hamlet, Lear, and Dubliners.

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Simone Gordon shows off a portrait painted in a City art class

One student wanders among the desks with a video camera, preparing a senior documentary. "What advice would you give incoming IB students?" he asks each group. "Do all your college work early," one IBer replies earnestly. "Hypocrite," another laughs. As soon as the videographer wanders to the next group, the talk returns to books. The conversation flows naturally, and the students toss out ideas easily, even without prompting from a teacher.

The International Baccalaureate program is a real source of pride at City. Established in the 1960s for children of American and British personnel overseas, the IB program teaches courses at a very high level, with an eye toward preparing students for college and university work. Students are externally assessed in all of their subjects, with two written papers, two oral presentations, and a final exam. In 1997, City became one of only eight schools in Maryland—and the only one in Baltimore—to support the program.

A member of the faculty at City for the past two years, Flaherty had been teaching in Italy and came to City especially for the IB program. She's wild about her students, whom she describes as "wonderfully insightful and, for the most part, dedicated, bright and motivated. Overall," she says, "they're nice kids. They want to get the most out of their education. They're proud of City's tradition and heritage."

And they think City has served them well. Simone Gordon, who'll attend Oberlin next year (after turning down UM College Park and Penn State) says she thinks her City classes—and, in particular, her IB classes—have prepared her well. "I think the reading and writing I've done at City will help me at Oberlin," she says. "They make us work hard here. There's always something we have to do. But I feel ready for college. And I'm ready to leave here and try something new."

4:15 p.m. Wilson has returned from his afternoon meeting; he seems relieved to be back on campus and surrounded by teenagers rather than administrative types. The administering, he admits, is one of the biggest challenges of the job; he struggles to be patient with the amount of time it takes.

Another big challenge, of course, is being a white man in a predominantly African-American school. He admits to some missteps early on. "I came in trying to be the enforcer," he says, "and some parents called me on it. Two of them came to me and said, ‘We know you're trying to make the school better, trying to make the young people conform to norms. But you're coming off as a racist, and you need to think about how you approach things, especially discipline.' I softened my approach, and I started to involve other people in my work," he says. "I'd come in like the Lone Ranger," he admits, "and to help City get better I had to learn to do things better. I'm grateful to everyone who helped me learn that lesson."

Wilson says that being able to approach the school board with an interracial group of parents, students, staff and alumni is essential. "You can't underestimate the importance of requests for funding coming from a diverse group," he says.

But funding remains an issue, he says—in fact, limited resources remain his biggest challenge. "Every year," he says, "City goes through a routine where City's budget is cut and the City family rises up to demand additional funding." These outcries usually pay off, but the time and emotional energy involved are draining.

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 Joe and Marty Wilson

"Public schools like City are trying to be successful while spending about $5,400 per kid per year," he says. "Private schools can spend anywhere from $12,000 to $20,000 per kid per year. It takes a whole lot more than the body politic wants to invest in public schools to get the results people are waiting so impatiently to get," Wilson says, his voice tightening with anger for the first time all day. "Contrary to what some people say, there's not been an enormous investment of resources in public education. We've never tried to give public schools adequate resources," he exclaims. "Just think what schools could do if we did."

Wilson says his own education—at Mt. Pleasant High School in Wilmington, Del.—was "pretty good, but not great. It wasn't until I got to Amherst," he says, "that I learned that there were really good educations being done at places like Glenbrook and New Trier. And of course there were a lot of guys who had gone to prep schools. So for me, Amherst was catch-up all the way." Wilson says he graduated in the bottom third of his class, but he's proud that he and his classmates were among what he describes as "the hardest working generation of students at Amherst. And I really came to like the intellectual challenge. I got through high school without being much of a thinker," he says. "At Amherst, I learned how much fun it is to be around bright people carrying on an intelligent conversation."

4:45 p.m. Wilson relaxes noticeably when his wife, Marty, walks into his office. Wilson was unmarried when he took the City job, and given his workaholism (he works 80 hours a week during the school year and 50 per week during the summer) it's surprising he's been able to find time for a life outside City.

Actually, his life with Marty isn't that far outside City. The two were married in 1995 (after meeting at church a few years before), and Marty Wilson's love for City is nearly as obvious as her husband's. She happily serves as the school's unofficial archivist, identifying and restoring the many photos that line the school's hallways and collecting items for the Hall of Fame and display cases. "These things help give students a sense of how they fit into City's history," she says. "And they give alumni a sense of the ongoing nature of City's work."

City succeeds, Wilson insists, because of the dedicated students, parents, teachers and alumni who have stood up for the school over the years. "I totally reject the notion that you can improve schools by fiat," he says. "Schools are little communities, and they need to find their own way."

That said, then, can City serve as a model for high school education, as the best-school-seeking Toronto National Post and others have suggested?

"Yes, in the sense that schooling isn't rocket science," Wilson says. "It's common sense and middle-class values. You have to have the energy to act it and reinforce it. And you have to have enough resources to support the kids.

"The worst thing that can happen to a kid—even if they long for it—is anonymity," Wilson says. "Students learn by imitation. They're watching the adults around them very keenly. And so in the sense that City has had enough adults around so that the students aren't anonymous, that they're more aware of themselves and their skills, it is a model—but not a model that's difficult to figure out."

Photos: Frank Ward