City College undergoes revival Principal: Joseph M. Wilson, who found a school in disarray three years ago, sets high standards, and the students are meeting them.

The Education Beat

March 30, 1997|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

WHEN JOSEPH M. Wilson arrived as principal of the venerable City College three years ago this month, there was more work to be done than most Baltimoreans knew.

In 1992, a Middle States evaluation team had visited City and had found it wanting, so wanting, said Wilson, that "they really questioned whether City should continue to exist and whether any school should be housed in this facility, given the state of its deterioration."

Last month, Wilson could report to parents that City has a new life. Enrollment (1,291) and attendance are up, the latter for the fourth year in a row. Student turnover is down from 34 percent three years ago to 11 percent, enrollment in honors courses is up by 200, oratory has returned as an extracurricular activity, and City is winning championships -- in chess.

It's really a third life for City, which suffered heart failure in the 1970s until a group of alumni and others with influence administered CPR and restored luster to the nation's third-oldest public high school.

Wilson, a 54-year-old former college football coach, San Jose, Calif., school board member and self-professed "recovering lawyer," was alone in the principal's suite when Education Beat interviewed him Good Friday morning, a holiday for city schools.

Do the citywide schools like City College get more funding than the zoned high schools?

Most people don't know that just the reverse is true. In Baltimore, citywide schools don't qualify for most of the special funding sources that would ordinarily beef up a high school budget. The typical funding for a high school like City nationally is in the $4,500 to $5,000 range per pupil. Baltimore's citywide schools get about half that before supplementary funding is added. It's stunning.

We were helped by being part of the Education Alternatives Inc. experiment, but when that contract was terminated last March, we were supposed to be cut. The mayor has had to step in two years in a row to save our budget. Insufficient funding was the primary criticism of the Middle States evaluation.

But don't you enjoy a good deal of independence from North Avenue?

We do and we don't. There's always a tug of war. Let me give you an example. When City was restored in 1977 and 1978, the planners stipulated that it would be a unique institution holding students and faculty to the highest standards and providing students with a college-prep curriculum focusing on the humanities. But that's the very antithesis of the one-size-fits-all philosophy of a large organization like this school system.

So two years ago the school board decreed that kids could get credit for a grade average as low as 60. We'd always held at 70 -- a C- -- and I think everyone here, parents and students and staff, wanted to be held to a higher standard, even if it meant some students weren't allowed in sports and extracurriculars. The old saw applies that students will rise to whatever standard you ask them to meet.

So last fall the school board admonished me for being unfair to students and parents [in insisting on the cutoff at 70]. What we've done since then is redouble our efforts to make sure every student meets the higher standard. It's working. More students are coming here, more are staying, and more are doing better while they're here.

What are your race and gender statistics?

We're 88 percent African-American, and for the first time in history City is seeing a majority of females. Our kids go to extraordinary lengths to be here. Some get up as early as 5 and take three or four buses. For more than a century and a half, City College has been a school for first-generation college-goers, and it still is.

Once our students get in the door, we turn an official blind eye to the family circumstances some of them face. We tell them that they are expected to do the work and that it will be hard work. And they do! That's what makes me choke up every once in a while.

Is City's glorious tradition -- having the mayor, a couple of Sun columnists and prominent alumni always looking over your shoulder -- a mixed blessing?

It's almost always a blessing because they look out for us. And we keep graduating new generations to continue looking out for us.

What's new at City, and what's going to be new?

We've gone to the four-period day, not without a bumpy ride. We're increasing the amount of science and math and we're looking for the best way to infuse technology within the context of the liberal arts.

Next year we hope to be certified in the International Baccalaureate. It's a worldwide advanced placement program that typically grants sophomore status to those who go on to college. We like it because it's a liberal arts and humanities program developed over 20 years and recognized internationally.

What are you doing working on a holiday?

I'll be in tomorrow, too. It's a 24-hour-a-day job, but it's the most satisfying one I've had, and I've had plenty. I feel like I'm doing something to make a better society.

Do better than we do, city school officials say

Math lesson: City school officials, 50 of whose schools have been declared comatose by the state Department of Education after four years of state testing, have criticized the experimental Stadium School because it hasn't lived up to standards it set for itself in two years of state testing.

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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