New leader at BCCC has right attitude


Progressive: The new president of Baltimore City Community College brings an impressive track record with him from the South.

July 21, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IT WAS great to see the excitement on the face of Sylvester E. McKay as he met staff and surveyed part of his kingdom Thursday as the new president of Baltimore City Community College.

McKay, 48, starts Aug. 5. He comes from the presidency of the College of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City, N.C., a school of about half the enrollment of BCCC but one that draws students from 1,800 square miles of northeastern North Carolina - from the rural poor to the wealthy owners of Atlantic beach homes.

Slashing and burning didn't get McKay to the helm of the 18,000-student BCCC. Rather, he listened carefully as his career advanced, took the advice of colleagues and mentors, and, by his own admission, "lucked out at the right time."

At a meeting with his staff, McKay described his career with refreshing humor and a touch of modesty. He landed in college, he said, "because my high school counselor told me to go." And in his interviews with the BCCC search committee, he said, he got around the touchy issue of faculty tenure by "dodging it." (Tenure - career job security - was replaced by a series of rolling contracts by McKay's predecessor, James D. Tschechtelin.)

But McKay is not a man without plans, and Baltimore may soon see some of his handiwork.

His North Carolina college, for example, has better ties with local public school systems than does BCCC. Albemarle has a genuine dual enrollment program under which high school students can take courses tuition-free at the community college. High school kids make up 10 percent of Albemarle's enrollment, McKay said.

He'll need to build better bridges with the city's high schools - and quickly. BCCC is in the midst of a crisis of remedial education. The majority of transfer students at the community college require extra help in math and reading. McKay said these courses should be taught by "full-time, dedicated people," not by Beltway adjuncts who hold two or more part-time jobs, none paying health or other benefits.

That's music to the ears of those who note that BCCC, not unlike other community colleges, has more part-time employees, 760, than full-time, 501.

BCCC competes for students and programs with surrounding county colleges, including the three-campus Community College of Baltimore County. But there's room for more career programs, particularly in health care, McKay said.

And, of course, auto technology. There always seems to be a need for what we used to call mechanics. These days, technologists start at $45,000 out of college and move up to $100,000 in just a few years, McKay said. "And they're not crawling under vehicles. They're pushing buttons and watching screens. ... Do you want someone who can barely read repairing your Lexus?"

One of the North Carolina partnerships of which he's most proud, McKay said, will soon bear fruit. In a few months, Albemarle and a local hospital and prison will open an on-campus child-care center for 140 children. It will operate from 6 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. to accommodate early and late shifts. It will have a "sick room" with separate ventilation so that children who become ill won't interrupt their parents' work schedules or expose healthy kids to illness.

"It'll be state-of-the-art," said McKay, who said tending to his own kids, an 11-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son, is his avocation.

"I'm their play toy," he said. "I get on the floor, and the one riding my back is the 4-year-old. I watch Barney."

A lesson on philanthropy aimed at school reform

Eight years ago, Walter H. Annenberg, the former U.S. ambassador to Great Britain and publisher of TV Guide, began investing in the nation's public schools. He launched the Annenberg Challenge with his money and that of corporations, colleges, universities, individuals and foundations.

Much of the $1.1 billion eventually invested went to urban systems - Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and San Francisco - where it financed teacher training, arts education and other projects. Eventually, the program reached 1.5 million students in 35 states.

Last month, the Annenberg Challenge issued its final report, conceding that some of the money had produced no results. "Even large gifts like ours are no substitute for adequate, equitable and reliable funding," the report said.

Officials said the challenge spread itself too thin. For example, a typical grant in Chicago was $39,000 to a school with a $3.8 million budget. The total investment wouldn't buy a $25 textbook for each of the 47 million students in public schools.

There are lessons in the Annenberg report for other philanthropists, such as Bill and Melinda Gates, who are pouring millions of dollars into school reform, and for those spending the money made available to Maryland's poor children under provisions of the 2002 Thornton legislation.

By coincidence, it's also $1.1 billion.

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