It's time for detente at Wilde Lake High


March 29, 1998|By Harold Jackson

I WAS AT the gulag the other day, visiting inmates. Yes, I'm talking about Wilde Lake High School. With parents decrying the repression of students' democratic rights there, I had reason to be apprehensive about setting foot in the place. A journalist who might reveal to the world what an utterly demoralizing, stifling, police-state mentality exists at Wilde Lake might find himself "disappeared," Nicaragua-style.

I don't mean to make light of the very real tense situation at Wilde Lake, which apparently has some students, and teachers, fearful of expressing their opinions. But people do need to lighten up. The Cold War attitudes that have opposing factions using "moles" to spy on one another is counterproductive. It's time for detente.

My visit to Wilde Lake in Columbia was prompted by the protests of a vocal collaboration of students, parents and teachers after the school's principal, Roger Plunkett, proposed a dramatic change in class schedules.

He kept me waiting 30 minutes, but I went into the interview with an open mind about him. I'm glad I did. Mr. Plunkett is no despot, unwilling to listen to dissent. But he made a mistake that left him with that image. Now he has to work hard to counter it.

Far from a prison

Wilde Lake, reopened last year after being rebuilt, is far from a prison. It is delightful to simply spend a few moments looking down from one of its balconies at the spacious hallways and tiled floors. Hundreds of loud but orderly students scurry to class under the watchful eye of Mr. Plunkett, who gently urges them not to be late. It is clear that he cares about all the students, but especially those who require extra attention.

These he knows by name -- the low achievers, the discipline problems, the teen-age mothers. He knows their personal problems. He knows their parents' problems. Many he has visited in their homes.

Mr. Plunkett believes some of these teen-agers have gotten a raw deal. Somewhere during these students' education, teachers viewed them as not capable of learning and wrote them off -- and they accepted that label.

It's easier when no one expects you to study and get good grades.

Coming to Wilde Lake last school year after being principal at Atholton High for three years, Mr. Plunkett expected he might have to make some changes. He decided that a creative class-scheduling arrangement at Wilde Lake was detrimental to many students, particularly those who ought to be spending more time trying to improve their ability to read and write and reason.

'Supe days'

Mondays and Thursdays are "supervised study" days at Wilde Lake, or "supe days." On those days, students may "supe out" of a core class such as English and math and take an elective such as music or dance. The arrangement causes problems. Core-class teachers cannot teach anything new if even one student has "suped out" that day. Some core teachers still use the time wisely; some don't. Also, too many underachieving students "supe out" of a class they ought to be spending more time in to take an elective of little benefit. Some take gym as an elective and hang out there.

Few reasonable people disagree that "supervised study" at Wilde Lake needs to be changed. It is the way Mr. Plunkett tried to go about it that led to protests.

Parents received the first official word of a possible change in a Jan. 9 letter from Mr. Plunkett.

The same letter included notice of a Feb. 21 "coffee and conversation" meeting with the principal, indicating that would be the time for parents' input. But Mr. Plunkett continued to discuss with teachers the changes he sought. Some of them disagreed with his ideas. The content of the discussions was leaked to parents.

That prompted Mr. Plunkett to attach a letter to students' Feb. 4 report cards providing details of the "supe study" changes he wanted to make. He again noted that parents would have an opportunity to comment. The specificity of details in his letter, however, suggested any subsequent comment by parents would be superfluous.

Since then, a fusillade of letters to the editor printed in The Sun and Columbia Flyer have caused Mr. Plunkett to assert more strongly that the final decision has not been made. That's good.

He needs to reassure parents of children who are doing well in core classes and would benefit from special instruction in an elective such as music that "supervised study" will be available. He needs to share with parents his ideas to keep core classes from stagnating on "supe days."

The shame of all the brouhaha is that most of the people involved want the same thing -- improvement. Wilde Lake students' test scores were deficient in eight of nine academic categories this school year; the next closest school in Howard County was deficient in four.

To improve, Wilde Lake may have to do many things differently. That can't happen until people stop fighting a war of words and work together. Mr. Plunkett must lead the way.

Harold Jackson is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 3/29/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.