Decades later, still the same `expectation of excellence'

Centennial's 30th anniversary

October 26, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the Sun

When Centennial High School opened in 1977, Bruce Smith transferred from Mount Hebron High to join the staff. He didn't imagine that, 30 years later, he would still be teaching American history at Centennial.

"I don't think you think about the idea of being in one place for a long period of time," said Smith, 58. But once he started teaching at Centennial, he saw no need to look elsewhere. "The idea of going somewhere else never really entered my mind," he said.

Smith isn't the only one. Three other educators - physical education teachers Al Dodds and Gail Purcell and math teacher Mike Siegert - have all been at the school for its 30-year history. Though all had taught at other schools for several years before coming to Centennial, once they arrived, they saw no reason to leave.

What's more, Dodds and Purcell have worked together in the physical education department the entire time. "My second wife," joked Dodds, 59. "I get nagged at home and I get nagged here." He quickly added: "Just kidding."

Purcell, 55, said the joke isn't new. "His wife says we share him," she said.

The four teachers will be honored tomorrow afternoon as part of the school's homecoming activities, and they are being featured in this year's 30th anniversary yearbook, which will be available at homecoming.

This week, the four reflected on their combined 120 years of teaching at the Ellicott City school.

When asked about specific memories, they talked about packed auditoriums for school plays and concerts, and of students who had gone on to great success, but still came back to see their former teachers.

Many things have changed, they said. Teachers have more paperwork than ever, and kids, raised on video games, are more easily distracted. "There are all these bells and whistles that students can go home to and be entertained," said Smith. "We're competing with that."

In math, there's a greater focus on learning data analysis. In physical education, the emphasis has shifted from teaching specific sports skills to teaching lifelong healthy habits. And physical education is no longer required for all four years of high school, Dodds and Purcell noted.

In addition, the Centennial demographics have changed. The school, which started an ESOL program for the first time this academic year, has more students born in other countries than in the early years. Also, said Dodds, "there are more kids that are not as affluent."

But the essential Centennial-ness of the school remains. "There's an expectation of excellence at Centennial," said Purcell.

From the first day, said Siegert, 54, Centennial was expected to shine academically, and the school has more than met that expectation. But Centennial's athletic accomplishments were a pleasant surprise, he said.

The school's mantra, "commitment to excellence," is what defines the school, Siegert said.

All four teachers have also been active as coaches. Dodds leads cross country and track and field; Purcell coaches field hockey; Siegert has coached lacrosse; and Smith led soccer and volleyball teams.

Dodds noted that Centennial parents have always been an involved group, helping keep standards high in the classroom and on athletic teams.

Purcell agreed. "The community is fantastic here and very supportive," she said.

Though all four of these teachers live in Howard County, Smith is the only one with children who attended Centennial. His two sons and daughter suffered through a few inevitable awkward moments as students in classes taught by dad, he said, but all seem to have emerged from the experience intact. "It didn't create that much of a problem," he said.

All four say they're not ready to retire, though Smith recently attended a retirement-planning seminar, and Siegert is planning to do the same. Dodds said he can imagine a life beyond Centennial. "It would be nice to do something different," he said. "I'm sort of tired of having my life regulated by bells."

Said Smith: "As good a place as this is, there's no reason to retire. If people didn't ask me all the time, I probably wouldn't think about it."

"When I don't look forward to teaching, then I'll know it's time," Siegert said.

Purcell, a Howard High School graduate, said she is nowhere near that point.

"So many people get up in the morning and really dread going to work," said Purcell, who led her field hockey team to the county title this week in her final year of coaching. "I get up every morning, and I'm really excited to come here."

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