Students, parents protest principal's resignation

January 03, 2008|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

This was supposed to be an exciting week at Maritime Industries Academy, with students preparing for a Jan. 9 visit from the secretary of the Navy.

Instead, the little Baltimore high school - in a strip mall in the 700 block of W. North Ave. - is in turmoil, railing over the sudden departure of the principal and the assistant principal.

Dozens of parents and students marched about 10 blocks to school system headquarters yesterday morning in support of Principal Marco T. Clark, who has resigned, and Assistant Principal Kevin Brooks, who was placed on paid administrative leave.

System officials declined to give a reason for what happened because the matter is a personnel issue. But several sources with knowledge of the system's investigation said Clark faces an allegation that a student's grades were falsified for the student to graduate and that Brooks has been cleared of wrongdoing.

Efforts to reach Clark and Brooks were unsuccessful.

System spokeswoman Edie House confirmed last night that Brooks will be reinstated today, acting as managing assistant principal. He will oversee daily operations pending school board approval.

The 300-student school was formed in 2004 as a result of the breakup of Walbrook High, where Clark had been assistant principal under former mayoral candidate Andrey Bundley. Bundley was removed as Walbrook's principal that year and transferred to a central office job amid accusations that he had allowed students to graduate or advance to the next grade without meeting requirements.

The parents and students protesting yesterday, the first day back from the winter break, were angry that the system had not explained what happened to Clark and Brooks. Both left abruptly two days before the break started. On the last day before vacation, Dec. 21, the protesters said, the school was in chaos as central office administrators and school police arrived in large numbers. Many teachers didn't show up to work; others were crying.

"It was crazy," said 17-year-old Kenjah Henry, a junior at the school who participated in the protest. She said of Clark, "For a lot of us, he's like a father figure. We all know he would never resign. He would never just leave us. We're like his children."

The parents and students also said the school is typically far more orderly than several of the city's other neighborhood high schools. There is no school police officer regularly assigned there. The school had reported a 99 percent graduation rate last year, according to literature it distributed.

But until recently, the school did little to emphasize its maritime theme. Getting the school to live up to its mission has become a pet project of U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.

"The school is four blocks from my house," Cummings said. "When I found out about it, I said, `This is perfect.' This is a school located in one of the largest port cities in the country. We've got so many assets here and so many jobs that a lot of these kids don't have a clue about. ... Many of these kids had never been to the port, but yet they were in a maritime high school."

Since beginning work on behalf of the school this summer, Cummings said, "it has been one of my top priorities."

The school has weekly speakers from the maritime field. Next week, Navy Secretary Donald C. Winter is scheduled to speak, but officials were contemplating yesterday whether to postpone the visit.

Adm. Thad W. Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard, is scheduled to speak next month.

Cummings also noted that the school has implemented a junior ROTC program, that seniors will be placed in maritime-related internships and that a maritime curriculum is being developed.

A few months ago, Cummings convened a board of local maritime leaders to help govern the school, including former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley. He also arranged for the school to be taken out of the jurisdiction of an administrator overseeing neighborhood high schools and placed under the administrator overseeing charter and innovation schools.

Maritime is not yet a charter, a public school that operates independently, but the new governing board is weighing whether to apply to convert it to one. Now designated as an "innovation" high school, Maritime is no longer required to admit students who aren't interested in maritime careers, Cummings said.

"It was in name only a maritime school," said one of the board members, George "Bud" Nixon Jr., chairman of Baltimore's private-sector port coalition. "We've been working with Dr. Clark and the whole staff trying to improve the school and make it more representative of the port of Baltimore. Needless to say, I was shocked when I got the news about what's going on and still don't have it straight in my mind why it is."

Nixon said he was "more than a little impressed" with both Clark and Brooks. But even with Clark's departure, he said, "we're not going to give up our efforts on the school. ... One or two people will not make or break what we're trying to do."

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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