2 schools seek a new beginning

September 03, 1991|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Evening Sun Staff

At first glance, the two schools couldn't be more different.

Baltimore Polytechnic Institute is a showcase, drawing high school students from throughout the city for a curriculum rich in math, science and engineering.

Hampstead Hill Middle School, near Patterson Park, struggles with poor facilities, scant resources and the challenge of a diverse student body.

Between them lies the full range of public education in Baltimore. But these schools have more in common than meets the eye.

In recent years, Poly has been stung by claims that its standards are slipping, claims that have prodded its high-powered alumni into action.

At Hampstead Hill, community relations reached rock bottom last spring when complaints about rowdy students led City Hall to appoint a special task force.

And in both cases, there was this change: an aggressive new school chief determined to wrest control of a high-profile institution and bring it up to snuff beginning today, the opening day of school.

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A.W. Strickland, the new director of Poly, is frank in his assessment of the city's math and science high school.

"Right now, Poly has been floundering for five or six years," says Strickland, formerly a professor of science and computer education at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Poly, often seen as the equal of a private school, has the pick of students from throughout the city interested in studying math, science and engineering.

But, in recent years, Poly has been the subject of grumbles from alumni worried about its academic quality and leadership.

"There hasn't been adequate planning, there hasn't been a clear set of objectives," says Strickland, who notes that Poly has had a number of directors in its past eight years. "There's certainly been a noticeable decline in scores in math and in other areas."

Though Poly students still top the city in Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, those scores have dropped in tandem with the national trend, says Strickland.

And he is disturbed by the number of students who leave Poly, mainly because they can't handle the mathematics. In one recent year, that total reached 136 students, or 8 percent of the student body.

In the view of those who picked him, Strickland is the man to restore Poly's stature. Chosen by two separate search panels, he was encouraged to take the job by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

"He's got excellent analytical credentials, he really understands a math/science high school," says Patrick Tracy, president of the powerful alumni association.

Equally important, in Tracy's view, is Strickland's "ability to motivate people, both faculty and students, alumni and parents."

And Tracy agrees that Strickland has his work cut out for him.

"Poly was living off its past for the last 10 years, maybe, and not doing things to prepare for the future," says Tracy, who cited lax leadership at the school. "I think Dr. Strickland will get things back to where they were."

In Strickland's view, the elements are in place. Only the motivation has been lacking. Strickland has motivation to spare.

In more than 25 years as an educator, he has been a physics instructor, college professor, television consultant, researcher and computer store owner.

His lengthy list of publications contains nearly a dozen books -- including reference works on science fiction films.

"The most important thing in education is not intelligence," Strickland says. "It's motivation and hard work. What we have to do is motivate the students."

He already has begun a series of changes aimed at energizing both staff and students.

Starting this year, virtually all staff members at the school will be required to teach, including counselors, deans, even the business manager. Strickland cut an assistant principal's slot and a counselor's job, and put those resources into teaching staff.

These and other changes have reduced the average class size to 30, down from 38.6 last year.

Strickland also is making changes designed to better prepare students for college.

For example, students in some subjects will get a mixture of lectures, labs and small group discussions, similar to the format used at many universities.

With the help of Poly alumni, a 120-seat auditorium is being renovated into a high-tech instructional amphitheater. Strickland hopes to videotape lectures, making them available to students in the library.

There are other changes as well:

* New computer labs and high-tech classroom equipment, funded with $1.5 million being raised by Poly's board of trustees and alumni.

* A robotics course, for the first time ever.

UI * An electricity lab for the first time in six years, and a mechanics

lab for the first time in 10 years.

* A satellite link, donated by Johns Hopkins University, giving access to weather maps.

On a more practical note, Strickland has personally overseen long-neglected maintenance.

And there is a renewed focus on the students themselves.

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