No oven mitts, no spatulas, no sewing needles -- this is not your mother's home ec class.
In this classroom, girls at Baltimore City's Western High School are doing some intellectual cooking. The topic of discussion is child development. It's possible to change the sex of an unborn child through genetic engineering, teacher Carol Henkle tells her students, but is it right? Is it moral?
Some of the girls are restless, leaning on outstretched arms or flipping through loose-leaf binders. Others listen intently; they voice strong opinions, some suggesting that scientists are wrong in tampering with nature. There are no right or wrong answers, Mrs. Henkle tells the girls.
There are only personal choices, the type of choices Western students may have to make one day. The type of choices for which a public high school must prepare tomorrow's leaders. The type of choices that were not included in the curriculum when the school was founded 150 years ago to train girls as primary school teachers.
Then, the Westernite's education was grammar, rhetoric, arithmetic and geography, a course load lighter than that offered at the city high school for boys. The Western girl would graduate to a teaching career -- if she would have one at all -- and in it she'd earn about half what male counterparts would. Eventually, she would marry and become a mother. These were not choices; they were expectations.
Home economics wasn't a subject for the classroom back in 1844; good girls received plenty of proper training in these matters at home.
A 150-YEAR CHALLENGE
This week, as Western students and alumnae don the costumes past eras to celebrate the school's sesquicentennial, they will be reminded of those times past when girls' options were limited.
"They certainly have more choices than they had 150 years ago, even more than they had 20 years ago," said Mrs. Henkle of today's seniors. "They don't have to have children. They don't have to get married. But they need information so they will be prepared to make those choices."
Western's challenge today is to uphold its mission to give young women "the best and most appropriate secondary education available" -- at a time when the definition of what is appropriate is constantly being revised.
Keeping up with change has never been enough for some Westernites; blazing trails has been more to their taste. The school's evolution has closely mirrored the bursts of progress achieved by and for women during the last 150 years. And after a century and a half, Western can boast a reputation of academic excellence; its students regularly score above citywide averages on standardized tests.
"If things are going to happen in this world, it is because women are going to make them happen," said Anne Carusi, who became Western's principal in August. "And if they are going to do that later, they need the guidance now."
By encouraging the development of sisterhood, integrity and confidence through academic achievement, Western once was radical -- teaching strength at a time when women weren't expected to display it. Now the school must continue to evolve -- to prepare girls to be the effective leaders society assumes they will be.
"It does prepare young women to face the world," said Sandra L. Wighton, who after 15 years as Western's principal was promoted this summer to assistant superintendent of city schools in the Southeast area. "That may sound like an awful cliche -- since every commencement speaker in the country says that about every high school and college -- but it is absolutely true. It's just that sometimes, the world wasn't ready for them."
In November of 1844, 36 girls carried writing slates to classes in arithmetic, grammar and geography in the two rooms of Armitage Hall at 100 N. Paca St. They were pioneers, taking advantage of one of the first opportunities for women in this country for a public education beyond grammar school.
The city had just established a Female High School on the east side of the city (Eastern) and another on the west (Western).
For five years, Baltimore boys already had been advancing from grammar schools to the High School, which later became Baltimore City College. (The city's next boys high school, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, would not be established for more than 40 years.)
Rhetoric, logic and elocution courses taught the girls to be persuasive orators. Years later, when the classes became larger, the girls elected class officers and a student council. These were their foundations for practicing leadership.
"Western reflected the needs of women at that historical point," says Michael Franko, head of the school's guidance department. "It provided a sound education to the students and with that the girls could do anything they wanted to do and that society would allow them to do, which, of course, wasn't always the same thing."