"Western of 1994 is facing the same societal problems that every other high school in the nation is facing, and that makes it even more crucial that the students here understand why there are at Western," said Sandra Wighton, the former principal. "The significance of their task here at Western is apparent as the girls get to junior and senior years, but it is getting harder and harder for the ninth- and 10th-grade girls to understand and conform to those ideals."
Although they still wear white on Senior Day and sing the same songs as past students, these aren't the same Westernites. They've grown up with working mothers, with rap music, with warnings about AIDS -- in other words, with less innocence than previous generations of girls.
Zakia Richburg, a senior at Western, said she watches the new groups of girls arrive each year. They come to school wearing clinging dresses and complicated hairdos, these girls who believe they are more sophisticated than their predecessors.
"Every year we'd talk about that, about how the freshman class each year gets more grown," Zakia said.
But the environment they've entered discourages distractions. Western doesn't have problems with weapons or illegal substances, said Cynthia Sanders, the school police officer, who roams the quiet hall mainly to provide a presence. No serious incidents have occurred since her watch began last fall, she said.
Fluorescent posters warning against teen pregnancy dot the yellow cinder-block walls throughout the school.
"I'm worried about those girls who think they have to have a baby to be something," said Principal Carusi, an alumna of Eastern High School. "I'm working to make them realize that there are good things about being a young lady -- and I'm not talking about the white gloves and prim-proper attitude, either.
"It's about being worthwhile, being in touch with yourself so you can give something important back to others."
Edie House, a 1968 Western graduate and a local advertising executive, says this has been one of the school's lessons since its founding.
"Even back in 1844, regardless of the mores of the period right then, she [a Western student] has always had a sense of 'I can achieve. I am not the weaker sex.'
"You are part of a tradition that makes you want to contribute to society something positive. I don't know about the girls in 1994, but I hope that's still the thinking."
For many, it is, senior Mellanie Lee confirmed. She is completing Western's business college preparatory track, one of three academic tracks now offered. Students now may choose business college preparatory, college preparatory or advanced college preparatory course loads. For Senior Day, Mellanie proudly helped decorate the auditorium in her class colors -- purple and gold.
"I know I have the basics to go out and work anywhere in marketing or finance," she said. "I know Western has prepared me to actually go out in the world and succeed. That's what this school does for you."
Preparing the students to enter the global marketplace with the best tools at their disposal is one of Mrs. Carusi's goals.
"We live in an information age. We are consumers, overwhelmed by the amount of information available and it is a priority for these girls to learn to manipulate that," she said.
The task before her doesn't fit together quite as neatly as the jigsaw puzzle depicting children from different cultures that covers her table top.
"For more than a century, this school has been all girls and has had high academic standards. And I don't see that changing anytime soon," she said. "And while it's important to keep that, we do not know if it will look this way in the 2000s.
"I don't know exactly what it will look like, but I know it will look like part of the past, and that gives us a view of the future."
TRACI JOHNSON MATHENA is a free-lance writer living i Owings Mills and a 1988 graduate of Western High School.