Columbia school undergoes cultural shift Principal's actions divide Wilde Lake community

March 19, 1998|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

When some look at Columbia's Wilde Lake High School, they see a nurturing environment for creativity; others see a permissive atmosphere that has spawned discipline problems and low academic test scores.

What you see probably determines how you feel about Principal Roger Plunkett, whose actions in his first year at Wilde Lake have divided the high school community. By all accounts the campus that once embodied Columbia's free-thinking tradition is the midst of a cultural shift -- changes that reflect those in the 31-year-old planned community.

"There's some sort of myth about Wilde Lake, as though Camelot still lives -- but it doesn't," says Michael E. Hickey, school superintendent in Howard. "Some people think it is the same Wilde Lake it was when it began. But this is not the same time, not the same staff and not the same demographics."

Says Plunkett, "We're in changing times, and we want Wilde Lake to move forward. Although some deny it, the test scores indicate that it's time."

Plunkett's most divisive action probably seemed innocuous to outsiders: eliminating a concept called supervised study that allowed students to leave core classes two days each week to take elective courses. But it has tremendous repercussions in the school community.

Math teacher Robin Marcus, a Wilde Lake graduate, says: "This has not been about preserving the schedule, but about preserving the flexibility and spirit of Wilde Lake."

Widening the division was Plunkett's proposed transfer of three popular teachers -- including Marcus -- who spoke against his idea. Marcus learned Friday she will not be transferred after all. In any case, Plunkett says the transfer requests were unrelated to their opposition, though the teachers involved say otherwise.

In the weeks that followed, protests mushroomed. Many charged that the school community had no input on the scheduling changes. Hundreds turned out for meetings on campus that turned into yelling matches. Students and parents drew up petitions, formed committees and voiced complaints to the Howard school board. Students met with Hickey. One created a page on the world wide web: "Wilde Lake Under Siege."

Though Plunkett claimed students' abuse of the schedule was part of the reason the school's test scores are now the lowest in the county, others saw "supe study" as just the sort of cherished freedom that makes Wilde Lake -- and its students -- so special.

In the wake of the protests, many rushed to Plunkett's defense, saying his moves to tighten academic standards are needed and long overdue. They say "supe study" may be great for motivated students but doesn't work for those who need structure and supervision.

Reflecting the spirit of Columbia and the late 1960s, when Wilde Lake opened it emphasized self-paced learning and flexibility. Students could retake tests until they earned a passing grade. Classes were divided into "segments" instead of quarters to give teachers more freedom.

The original schedule was part of a national study on school flexibility.

Pub Date: 3/19/98

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