New director aims to take Poly into the top-10 realm

July 17, 2004|By GREGORY KANE

PRICK BARNEY Wilson's left index finger, and it might bleed blue blood.

Prick his right index finger, and it might bleed orange.

This man bleeds orange and blue, the colors of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute - which is simply Polytechnic Institute to folks here at The Sun, and, horror of horrors, Poly High School to those broadcast news organizations whose on-air folks clearly aren't from around here.

Wilson graduated from Poly - that's how it's known to most Baltimoreans - and is the safe name the school's alumni will accept - in 1976. His four brothers graduated from Poly. His nephew, his niece and his oldest daughter are Poly students. His younger daughter will one day be a Poly student, Wilson declared before a group of Poly alumni at a reception Wednesday night.

"We're Poly through and through," Wilson said of his family.

They're now more Poly than ever. This month, Wilson became the first African-American director - that's what Techsters call Poly's principal - at the 122-year-old school.

Wilson brings a wealth of degrees, work, teaching and business experience with him. He earned his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, economics and math at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh; a master's in industrial administration at the same school; and a doctorate in urban educational leadership at Morgan State University.

The new director has taught at the Catonsville campus of the Community College of Baltimore County, the University of Baltimore and Coppin State College. He has owned a couple of businesses and, just before he took the Poly job, was campus administrator at the Dundalk campus of CCBC.

But I liked Wilson even before he told me all that stuff. He doesn't just have all those degrees and education and work experience. When Wilson said he spent his first two years at Poly wrestling in the 121- and 132-pound weight classes, I knew I liked the guy already. I liked him even more after he told me his plans for his alma mater.

After I asked where Poly could go after scoring second in the state on the 10th-grade high school assessment reading test, Wilson showed that he will brook no complacency at Poly.

"How did we do nationally?" Wilson asked. "That's the question. Poly will not be resting on that accomplishment. We want to be in the top 10 nationally, and even globally. Right now, we're not even in the top 100 nationally."

Poly's alumni probably know that Wilson isn't fooling around. Students - returning and incoming - had best know the guy is serious. One of his first acts at Poly was to surf the Internet to identify the top 10 high schools in the country and explore how they got where they are. Wilson is determined that before his run is through, Poly's going to be there, too.

That's some devotion for a guy who, by the time he finished the eighth grade at St. Cecelia Roman Catholic School near Walbrook Junction, acknowledged that he hadn't even heard of Polytechnic Institute. (It's truly a cloistered existence some Catholics live.)

It was a St. Cecelia priest who told Wilson about Poly, took him to the school and introduced him to the guidance counselors. Wilson chose Poly and became part of a student body that was about, he estimates, 25 percent to 30 percent African-American. Today, Poly is 75 percent African-American. Wilson isn't bashful about telling people how he feels about being the school's first black principal.

"I think it's an honor," he said. "It's 50 years after the Brown decision. There are a lot of folks who graduated from Poly who are really proud of this. I get the feeling I have the support of the alumni and of the [Baltimore Polytechnic] Foundation."

Wilson might be guilty of understatement on the last point. Adrian Palazzi, a 1970 Poly grad who attended the Wednesday night reception, could barely contain his enthusiasm as he spoke of the positive comments he had heard about Wilson's taking the helm at Poly. Palazzi even mentioned how he felt about it.

"It gives me goose bumps," Palazzi said. "We've got a good man."

Indeed they do. Already, Poly is the Baltimore school that scores highest on state exams - beating out most schools in Maryland, even those in tony Montgomery and Howard counties. That black-white achievement gap that's so vexing to most other schools is virtually nonexistent at Poly. As the only Baltimore school to require all its students to pass calculus as a condition for graduation, Poly might just be the most important school for all Baltimoreans, and certainly the most important for African-Americans.

Barney Wilson wouldn't want you to be surprised if Poly does indeed become one of the top 10 high schools in the country. When it does, remember that he told you it would happen.

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