Baltimore City College graduated its first coed class the same year Cindy Harcum, the school's new principal, started junior high. In love with literature and the humanities, she wanted to go to the school known as "The Castle on the Hill." Not that it would be easy. There were admission standards and, even worse, the commute from West Baltimore to Waverly.
"It took three buses and an hour and a half," Harcum recalls. "If the No. 22 went by twice and it was full, I took the subway downtown and went up from there.
"I wasn't going to let distance stop me, but that wasn't new," she adds. "After Gwynns Falls Elementary, I'd gone to Roland Park Junior High. I'd been doing it since I was 11."
Harcum's grandparents were immigrants from the West Indies. Her father finished high school in Baltimore six years before desegregation and moved from job to job—until, at 40, he earned a degree from Morgan State, landing a position with the federal Department of Transportation.
"He always stressed education," says Harcum, noting her sister and older brothers also earned college degrees. "It was understood that you would do well in school."
With her English lit degree from the University of Maryland, Harcum returned to City to teach in 1997. Eventually, she ran writing seminars in city high schools, developed curricula, trained teachers, and oversaw SAT readiness preparation at City. In 2004, she began coordinating the International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement (AP) programs. (The IB program is a rigorous humanities curriculum originally designed to train diplomats.) A year later, she was assistant principal.
Last August, amid declining test scores and national rankings and the arrest of a City College staffer on sexual abuse charges, Baltimore City schools CEO Andrés Alonso reassigned principal Tim Dawson and asked Harcum if she'd take the job on an interim basis.
Open and earnest, she brought a natural connection with the students to her new position. She also brought the credibility of having walked in their shoes.
"If they tell me they're late because of a bus, I tell them to get up earlier," Harcum says. "Nothing will be given to you here."
From the start, Harcum concentrated on expanding the college advising process and building academic rigor. She hired City's first admissions director, striving to attract the best public—and private—middle school students.
With four-year college admissions, IB and AP pass rates, and SAT scores demonstrating marked gains in her first year, Harcum was named permanent principal in mid-May.
"I'll be honest, I saw it as a leadership opportunity," Harcum says of her interim role last year. "I didn't see it as keeping things settled until somebody else took over. I wanted to raise the bar and set a new course."
Founded in 1839, City College counts three current Maryland Congressmen as alumni: Rep. Elijah Cummings, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, and Sen. Ben Cardin. Mayors William Donald Schaefer and Kurt Schmoke, philanthropists Joseph Meyerhoff, Morris Mechanic, and Zanvyl Krieger, and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Russell Baker are also City alumni, along with dozens of judges, state legislators, scientists, educators, and journalists.
As much as the Baltimore City Public School System has struggled over the past several decades, City College remained a shining light, sending graduates to Johns Hopkins and the Ivy League year after year. Yet, according to several measuring sticks, the school had been in decline recently. It wasn't merely perception, and the alumni association, which is very active, knew it.
"When I came back to the school in 2007 as a college adviser, the environment was disappointing," says Sophia Rudisill, a 1995 City graduate. "The professionals in the building were not as excited as when I was a student."
In 2006, Newsweek ranked City College at No. 206 in its survey of top public high schools. By 2010, the school had fallen to 547. Average SAT scores dropped 57 points from 2007 to 2010. The number of students earning prestigious IB diplomas dropped from 12 in 2009 to five in 2010. Seniors bound for four-year colleges slipped to 75 percent, five points behind rival Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.
Alonso says City stumbled in recent years, lowering goals to simply passing Maryland High School Assessments (HSAs) and No Child Left Behind's Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) targets. Instead, he says, the school should focus on admission to elite colleges.
"We've been looking at performance at the school for some time, intent on trying to change the nature of the lens," Alonso says. "Kids graduating and passing HSAs are an important part of the conversation at other schools, not City. We want to move the conversation at City to leadership. Comparisons shouldn't be to schools in Baltimore, but to elite schools in the country, particularly in civics and the area of the humanities."
In her one year as principal, Harcum has come a long way in implementing the new strategy, which, she says, directly links the broader goal of college admissions to course selection, AP exams and IB classes, extracurricular activities, SAT preparation, and application essays—in short, almost everything.
"Even P.E. should have a purpose," she says. "We built in a P.E. research piece around the International Baccalaureate program."
The tactics include big things like the "7 buses, 7 colleges" trip through Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., and little things like improved college financial-aid workshops, which now help parents navigate online forms at the school and submit them the same night.
"By Feb. 15 this year, 85 percent of students had submitted financial-aid forms," says college advising chair Rodney Joyner, a critical accomplishment at a school where 60 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches.
Harcum brought back the junior interview clinic, which requires students to wear professional attire as they sit down with alumni, business leaders, and college admissions officers in a simulation of a real-life interview.
More recently, college-going alumni returned to speak to classes, aiming to get students to connect the dots to their future.
Faculty and staff relationships with students are critical at a college preparatory institution where most kids come from homes where neither parent attended college, says Joyner, who was one of those kids. He recalls a City adviser literally pulling him into her office, and then driving him to visit Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College), where he graduated. Joyner worked in college admissions there before returning to City. The more personal the approach, the better, he says, and each faculty member now also oversees advising for a small group of students.
"My perception is that only kids who are really self-motivated or have parents pushing them come in to talk on their own," Joyner says. "There are other kids, who are floating, good students who don't know what to do."
In recent years, graduation rates have improved significantly for Baltimore City schools overall. But for the system's secondary schools to take the next leap forward, Alonso and new city schools Chief Academic Officer Sonja Santelises say City, Poly, and Western must raise the ceiling.
Doing so, Alonso believes, lifts expectations across the system. "Truthfully," he says, "I'm not interested in equity without excellence."
Santelises admits the plan has generated some backlash.
"I've already gotten the calls," she says. "'How come you're not pushing our high school? We should be pushed, too.' But I can't make the case for a four-year college if the kids are one or two years behind."
In an effort to start kids earlier on an elite track, last year City authorized the Middle Years Programme, a version of the IB curriculum for ninth and tenth graders. As part of the program, tenth graders complete a year-long personal project, confronting a significant question in their lives, conducting research, and developing a process and medium to address it by graduation.
Sarah Jeanblanc, a City English teacher and the IB Middle Years Programme coordinator, emphasizes the IB program because classes promote inquiry, discussion, and writing around rigorous content and assessment. Successfully completing upper-level IB classes can earn college credits.
After the number of students graduating with IB diplomas dropped to five before Harcum's arrival this year, it bounced back to seven. Students taking IB exams also increased from 308 to 369, while the pass rate improved from 35 percent to 40 percent. The AP pass rate rose by 18 percent, admission to four-year colleges jumped to 83, and the average SAT score jumped 80 points from 2010, to 1394.
"It's going in the right direction again," says Jeanblanc, City College's Teacher of the Year in 2010-11.
To further raise the bar, Harcum hired an admissions director. Seth Hedderick, a former interim principal at Friends School, pitches City's tradition, academic rigor, 35 clubs, athletics, and aggressive college admissions work to Baltimore's best middle-school students and their families, wherever they are—public, private, or parochial school.
"Everyone that will have me," he says, acknowledging the school wants to attract kids headed to Friends, Gilman, and Bryn Mawr. Every family won't consider City, Hedderick admits, but enough appreciate the school's tradition and value graduating from a diverse, urban public school to listen. Harcum sees the mission tied to the effort to keep families in Baltimore.
In terms of widening City College's demographics, the percentage of Latino or Asian-American students in the incoming class has risen from less than one percent to three percent. The percentage of white students has increased from eight percent to 10 percent.
The composite admission score to City, which includes academic factors like MSA results, has improved as well with the assistance of a dedicated admissions director. The minimum score for admission to City is 610, but there were reports that students were admitted in recent years below that figure, according to Hedderick. The average incoming composite of the incoming class is up 40 points, now in the 640-650 range.
Still, obstacles remain in recruiting top students, and ultimately, in comparisons to the elite public schools in the country. Most obvious are facilities issues. The roof leaks. The football field is mostly dirt between the 35-yard lines. The track is dilapidated, and the baseball field suffers severe drainage problems. Harcum estimates the school needs $2 million in capital improvements.
And although City, once again the only Baltimore City school to make the Newsweek 500 this past year, rose to No. 442, it suffers in comparison with Baltimore County schools, six of which finished ahead in the rankings, revealing how much ground City College has to make up to regain its historic form.
City College staff and North Avenue leaders point to Harcum's obvious care for the students, teachers, and institution, and the respect that engenders, as well as her collaborative leadership style for the school's success last year.
The most tangible symbol of Harcum's effectiveness, says Susan Legg, City's testing coordinator, might not be test scores, but the new, four-way traffic light at East 32nd Street and The Alameda, the end of City's driveway. It's a bus stop typically flooded with students.
Joyner, who graduated in 1984, says the intersection has been dangerous for as long as he can remember, and staff and parents have long clamored for a traffic light. Two students were struck there last year.
Harcum partnered with the school's PTSA, the Greater Homewood Community Corporation, and staff, and brought petitions supporting the traffic light into the school while working with City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke to see the effort through.
Harcum saw the traffic light as squarely in her purview. Others saw a focused leader going the extra mile.
"No one ever brought it to the forefront and put people into action," says Joyner.
"It showed she cared," Legg says, "and that she could get things done."
It's not just faculty or North Avenue leadership who believe the school is on track. On a recent hot summer day, with the school doors wide open and welcoming, State Sen. Nathaniel McFaddden, a City grad and a longtime Baltimore educator, came in to talk with Harcum.
McFadden hopes to convince his grandchildren to attend City.
"They see this all the time," he says, playfully holding out his class of '64 ring. "It's good to know the school's in good hands."