Wilde Lake High undergoing cultural shift, some say Principal's changes divide 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 out against his idea.

Marcus learned Friday that she will not be transferred after all.

In any case, Plunkett says the transfer requests were unrelated to their opposition, although the teachers involved say otherwise.

4 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."

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

Complicating the matter is that some charge racism is behind the criticism of Plunkett, who is African-American.

Self-paced learning

Reflecting the spirit of Columbia and the late 1960s, Wilde Lake opened by emphasizing 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 -- and Wilde Lake was touted at the time for its innovations, says Bonnie Daniel, former teacher and principal.

Until the old building was torn down and replaced two years ago, students freely painted graffiti on school walls. Administrators said it helped nurture school pride.

Today, Wilde Lake is the most racially diverse high school in Howard County. It continues to turn out some of the county's top students.

But, overall, Wilde Lake's students perform lower than those of any other Howard County high school on state assessments. Plunkett says more than one student in seven is at risk of failing.

A year ago, a campus fight preceded the death by heart attack of one teacher -- and led to the widespread feeling that Wilde Lake was floundering.

Luxury of the past

Plunkett insists that, in this situation, supe study is a luxury of the past the school can no longer afford.

"We simply need to change this," he says. "We can't lose two-fifths of the week."

Although many students agree that Plunkett's emphasis on discipline has injected a new spirit into the school, some question his strong leadership tactics.

Asked this week if students and teachers were talking about the scheduling change, one senior said, "No, they don't talk about it a lot because Mr. Plunkett yells at them. They're afraid the same thing that happened to [the teachers requested to transfer] will happen to them."

The student -- along with most other students, teachers and staff contacted at the school -- requested anonymity.

"The atmospheric change with the faculty is real," said Maryann West, one of the teachers who is expected to be transferred. "I've had people stop me in the hallways and look over their shoulder and pull me into classrooms because they're afraid of being seen with me. It's so sad that this is happening in an American school."

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