Recovering a 'positive culture'

Academy: A second-generation principal strives to instill pride, achievement.

May 16, 2004|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

In his father's day, parents would catch frogs for students to dissect in biology class.

Supplies were inadequate and textbooks outdated. But the standard for students was uncompromising: They needed to perform at twice the level of whites if they were to compete.

His father, Nathaniel Gibson Sr., was a teacher and assistant principal at segregated Harriet Tubman Junior-Senior High School in Howard County and became Howard's first black principal at a desegregated school, Waterloo Middle.

Now he, Nathaniel Gibson II, is the principal of Milford Mill Academy, a 95 percent black high school in Baltimore County.

As he picks up trash in the halls, hounds students who aren't in class and distributes green pencils pronouncing the school's commitment to student achievement, Gibson is trying to re-create the culture of his father's old school.

"There's a positive culture that was there before. It's been lost," says Gibson, 52. He is wearing a tie that reads:

2 teach is

+2 touch a life

4 ever

Teachers in the Baltimore area's segregated schools were exceptional, since teaching was one of the few outlets for black intellectuals. The late Gibson Sr., shut out of the University of Maryland because of his race, was educated at Columbia University. Other relatives went to New York University.

"They were not richer monetarily," his son recalls. "They were richer in the resources they had in the home and community. They were richer in the expectations they had."

With Milford Mill virtually segregated, Gibson is able to have painfully frank conversations with his students. He shows them how poorly their test scores compare. He asks them, "If I was walking down the street and saw you, what would be my impression? Would I walk to the other side of the street?"

His style has been controversial: He cut enrollment by about 200 students by tracking down students who live in the city and sending disruptive students to night and alternative schools. He confiscates hats and portable CD players; he strictly enforces the dress code.

Dozens of students interviewed noted drastic changes since Gibson took over last fall.

No longer can they linger outside and in the halls, or talk on their cell phones in class. "In past years, I wouldn't have actually called this a school," said Tia Graham, 17 and a senior. "I'd call it a hangout."

But great challenges remain.

Danielle Roane, a 15-year-old sophomore trying to push herself in the school's prestigious International Baccalaureate program, arrived at school one spring Tuesday to find substitutes in four of her five academic classes. Two teachers were out temporarily, while another two have long-term substitutes.

Also this spring, a series of fires were set in school bathrooms and locker rooms - a rite of passage for gang members, Gibson said. That students came forward to identify the perpetrators, he said, is evidence of a changing culture.

Gibson calls himself "the proud principal of Milford Mill Academy." He let students paint the foyer in bright colors. He will soon require everyone to have a major. His goal is to change the thinking that studying is uncool: "How do we change that mindset, that we need to strive for the best that's out there? It's driving me crazy. I see my kids striving for less."

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