Wilde Lake High's fate uncertain Once top-rated, school now falters

January 17, 1993|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

Columbia's oldest high school -- Wilde Lake -- is suffering an identity crisis.

Once the premier high school in the county, it was the first to educate the children of the "New Town" founders. But Wilde Lake, which opened in 1971, is scheduled to close next year for two years to undergo major renovations, and students, faculty ,, and parents are worried about the school's reputation and its future.

"A lot of students realize in a couple of years, Wilde Lake is going to be renovated, and Wilde Lake is going be lost," said senior Andrei McQuillan, Student Government Association treasurer.

Test scores have dropped during the past decade. Among the eight county high schools, Wilde Lake ranked last in the latest Maryland School Performance Program Report, failing five of 11 categories and earning only two excellent ratings -- still better than some schools in other counties. In Howard County, the school has the worst dropout rate -- close to 3.2 percent -- and the worst attendance rate, at 92 percent, the report said.

Wilde Lake, with roughly 815 students, has about 100 fewer students than it can accommodate. As a result, when Associate Superintendent Maurice Kalin recently announced the possibility that some students in the Centennial High School district would be moved to Wilde Lake, Centennial parents blasted the idea.

The parents cited academics and rumors of increasing violent incidents and racial tensions as reasons they don't want to send their youngsters to Wilde Lake. They said the school is not structured enough, and they said they have looked into other options, including sending their teen-agers to other high schools in the county or even to private schools.

Now the Wilde Lake High School community is fighting back.

"Trying to defuse some of the emotions here and deal with logic is what we're trying to do," said PTSA president Jan Morrison.

Parents in the school's PTSA, Booster Club and Black Student Achievement Program are making a videotape about their school and writing a pamphlet to dispel stereotypes. The principal is holding informational meetings in the areas where students could be transferred to Wilde Lake.

Then and now

If critics knew more about what goes on at the school, Principal Bonnie Daniel contends, they would see it in a different light.

"Very few people in the system really understand how Wilde Lake works," Ms. Daniel said. "You have to live here a little bit. You have to spend more than a couple of hours to grasp what is going on."

Wilde Lake was an experimental school from the beginning. It was designed in a circle, with the media center in the middle to encourage students to use media resources. The school's open space structure was designed to foster communication among the different disciplines -- science, math, English and social studies.

"All of that was purposely done to make this high school a more inviting place, a more communicative place than high schools typically are," Ms. Daniel said.

Students chose their own schedules -- what classes to take and when.

"Some kids would decide to do English, math and social studies on Monday, and do something else on Tuesday," Ms. Daniel said.

"Most of the time, students would pick up their individual packets, learn how to do them, then take the pre-test," said Sam Nissan, longtime guidance counselor.

Students didn't fail and couldn't earn less than a "C." If the work they did was inadequate to earn a "C," they got an "incomplete" mark on their report card and had two weeks to make up the work.

Students attended advisory periods, where groups of about 25 youngsters met with a teacher who acted as their friend and counselor. Advisers helped students change classes, manage grades and deal with peer problems.

Teachers, who had to learn how to become advisers, and students, used to traditional high schools, had difficulty adapting.

"I thought it was really weird," said Loren Feldman, who graduated in 1974 and is now a writer for Philadelphia Magazine. "The whole thing was a mystery to me, and I didn't take well to it for a while. It was up to me to do what I wanted to do. I didn't do very much," she said.

"It was amazing any learning came at all the first two or three years," said Mr. Nissan, who has worked at the school since it opened.

Changing times

As the years went by, the school evolved, Mr. Nissan said.

"Once individual instruction started to slide, teachers were in front of the class teaching," he said. "Then you had disturbances," such as teachers who taught too loudly or students who became too noisy for the open setting. Portable walls went up to separate classroom areas.

Ms. Daniel agrees that the school has changed.

"It's not as individual as it used to be," said Ms. Daniel, who taught English at the school when it opened. "On any given day, you wouldn't think it was different from any high school. But there are still remnants of the original. It is still possible for kids to tailor their high school education here more than anywhere else."

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