School bids its leader goodbye

Kemmery fostered Eastern Technical High's pursuit of excellence

July 15, 2002|By Jonathan Rockoff | Jonathan Rockoff,SUN STAFF

The books are stowed, papers cleared and all that remains on his office walls are the hangers that held up his many plaques. Eleven years after taking over a moribund vocational school that prepared students for some jobs that didn't exist, Robert J. Kemmery is leaving the nationally recognized academic powerhouse that he built.

"I don't have this out of my system yet," the principal said on the second-to-last day in his Eastern Technical High School office in Essex. Kemmery had just given a tour of the school to his replacement and explained what more he wanted to accomplish when he turned to his guest and said: "No, wait a minute. You're going to do this."

Now Kemmery is moving to an administrative post in the Baltimore County public school system and talking about applying the same principles that he used to turn around Eastern Tech to his new assignment: furnishing counseling, nursing and other services to the 107,600 students in the country's 23rd- largest school system.

"I figured if I could take some of the same skill sets that I've worked on at this level, hopefully I could have more of an impact systemwide. But frankly, I didn't envision doing anything else but this," Kemmery said Thursday as he looked around his barren office, wistfully recalling his work at Eastern Tech.

The high school's 1,360 students, who must apply for admission, can study topics such as information technology, construction management and allied health, in addition to regular English, math and science classes. Patrick S. McCusker, 38, a longtime math teacher who led Lansdowne High School for the past two years, will take over.

McCusker vowed to build on the strengths of the school while looking for opportunities to lead it in other positive directions. "That will be a major challenge," he said, "to live up to all of the expectations Mr. Kemmery set."

Under Kemmery, Eastern Tech's median SAT score jumped to 1,067 last year from 950 in 1991, while the percentage of students taking the exam leaped to 44 from 5 percent. Attendance now exceeds 97 percent. And its sports teams, long derided as "Easy Victory Tonight," a satire on the school's former initials, are consistent winners.

The U.S. Department of Education has recognized Eastern Tech as one of the nation's finest, Maryland has bestowed "Blue Ribbon" status upon it and visitors from around the world walk through its yellow-brick halls, air-conditioned laboratories and high-tech workshops to learn the secrets of its success.

"It's going to be difficult to keep up the momentum," said Laura Nossel, past president of the PTA Council of Baltimore County, who sent two children to Eastern Tech. "I know some assistant principals there are new. I hope there is enough there to keep the continuity, to keep the quality of the programs."

Her concern suggests the honored place that Eastern Tech holds in the surrounding Essex-Middle River area, which, after years of grimness accompanying the local decline of steel-making and the departure of defense jobs finally had something to cheer about - an excellent high school.

"Eastern Tech is the most important institution in the Essex-Middle River community," said Michael J. Collins, a former state senator who taught at nearby Kenwood High School. He said families came to the area and others stayed so their children could attend. Eastern Tech's success proved that schoolchildren from the eastern part of the county could make successful students.

"Essex still is and was always looked down upon, but Bob [Kemmery] always said, `Eastern Tech in Essex, Maryland,' and was proud of that" Collins said.

A stocky man with an intensity belied by the accent of his native Pittsburgh, Kemmery came to Eastern Vocational-Technical School in 1991 with a feel for the potential lying in blue-collar neighborhoods and hardscrabble kids. His father, a high school dropout, was a glassmaker. Kemmery paid for college through summer jobs working in blast furnaces making steel.

The high school "just reminded me so much of my home," Kemmery, 52, said. "There were a lot of good people who were not progressing as far as they should have because of a mismatch between their skill sets and the requirements of a new economy."

When he arrived at Eastern Tech, he promptly moved to change that. Kemmery did two things. He revised the curriculum to prepare students for the 21st century, replacing classes in offset printing, for example, with multimedia design. He also held his students to the same standards as those at comprehensive schools, dropping "vocational math" in favor of trigonometry and calculus.

"He's one of the few principals who has dynamically changed the vocational model to make it more technical and technological, raised the academics and lifted the spirit of the school," said Dorothy Hardin, the principal of Pikesville High School, who assisted Kemmery for five years and helped establish Eastern Tech's engineering program.

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