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How the ‘most modern’ high school in the nation became one of Baltimore’s most troubled

Lake Clifton High School, Jan. 1, 1972.
Lake Clifton High School, Jan. 1, 1972. (HUTCHINS/Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

Baltimore may be selling the old Lake Clifton High School campus to Morgan State University. The school system turned over the building, which sits upon a filled-in lake, to the city last year as part of a $1 billion initiative to renovate and rebuild aging schools.

Lake Clifton High had long been considered one of the city’s most troubled, but it started out with promise.

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When it opened in 1971, the $17 million campus boasted around half a million square feet of floor space, much of it carpeted. A mile of bridges, tunnels and corridors connected its five buildings. A two-story media center housed 40,000 books. It had two gymnasiums and a swimming pool. There were six major artworks, including a $65,000 sculpture, all financed through the city’s One Percent Law, a mandate that requires 1% of overall funding for construction projects to be dedicated to art.

Date Created: 1972-01-09 Copyright Notice: Baltimore Sun Folder Description: Lake Clifton Senior High School Riots Folder Extended Description: - 1 - 9 - | Title: LAKE CLIFTON SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL
Date Created: 1972-01-09 Copyright Notice: Baltimore Sun Folder Description: Lake Clifton Senior High School Riots Folder Extended Description: - 1 - 9 - | Title: LAKE CLIFTON SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL (HUTCHINS/Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

It was, according to an article that ran 15 years later later in The Sun, the “largest and most modern high school in the nation.”

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But there were problems from the beginning. Ongoing construction made for an inauspicious start. The school staggered its opening, bringing in only half of the 9th grade at first.

The school “was rejected by whites,” from the get-go, according to a 1975 article in The Sun. Attempts to woo them may sound familiar to listeners of “Nice White Parents,” a new podcast series detailing changes at one New York public school. Changes included specialized curricula, like a language magnet program offering Hebrew, Swahili and Mandarin. But the program lasted only a year. Some white students sued to avoid attending.

“City magnet schools, open enrollment, fail to halt segregation,” said a 1972 Sun headline.

In 1971, the city’s school board proposed sending students from overcrowded Northern High School to Lake Clifton. Five hundred people protested the decision. The board allowed them to remain at the packed school, attending in shifts.

Lake Clifton made other headlines for unrest. In one instance, around 1,000 students tore through the halls, some setting fires.

Date Created: 1971-11-20 Copyright Notice: Baltimore Sun Folder Description: Lake Clifton Senior High School Riots Folder Extended Description: - 1 - 9 - | Title: LAKE CLIFTON SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL RIOTS Subject: LAKE
Date Created: 1971-11-20 Copyright Notice: Baltimore Sun Folder Description: Lake Clifton Senior High School Riots Folder Extended Description: - 1 - 9 - | Title: LAKE CLIFTON SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL RIOTS Subject: LAKE (LAFORCE/Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

A new principal, Boyse Mosley, made it his mission to turn things around. He appeared on the cover of The Baltimore Sun Magazine in 1976. The headline: “Boyse Mosley, Principal of Lake Clifton: Tough but Compassionate.” Kids who came in late were sent home; Mosley monitored their dress in the hallways, ordering combs removed from hair and shirts tucked in.

In 1975, a desegregation plan aimed to change the makeup of the school from 99% Black to 61%. Mosley began a “public relations campaign” to “relieve the fears of the white parents.” He hired white secretaries and counselors and offered tours.

Students felt insulted. Sixteen-year-old Stacey Elder told The Sun, “when people come in here and ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ over the school, we think, ‘what are they looking for? Did they expect us to tear the school down?’”

But Mosley believed in his purpose. “If we succeed in desegregating Lake Clifton, we will succeed in the system; if it fails here, it will fail in the system.”

There were bright spots. Its basketball team, the Lakers, dazzled Baltimore, taking home conference titles and producing NBA players.

Woody Williams, Sam Leishure, Kevin Graham, Robert Brown, Gerald Armwood Date Created: 1976-02-23 Copyright Notice: Baltimore Sun Folder Description: Lake Clifton Senior High School Folder Extended Description: 1 | Title: LAKE CLIFTON SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL Subject: LAKE CLIFTON SENIOR
Woody Williams, Sam Leishure, Kevin Graham, Robert Brown, Gerald Armwood Date Created: 1976-02-23 Copyright Notice: Baltimore Sun Folder Description: Lake Clifton Senior High School Folder Extended Description: 1 | Title: LAKE CLIFTON SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL Subject: LAKE CLIFTON SENIOR (HARRIS/Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

Though the desegregation plans worked for a time, “white students no sooner arrived than they vanished,” The Sun’s Daniel Berger wrote in 1986. That’s when Lake Clifton merged with Eastern High School.

Violence and other problems worsened. In 1984, four people were shot in three separate incidents on the school grounds. For security, staff closed 59 of the 60 entrances and required students to present ID upon arrival.

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In 2003, the city’s school board proposed closing the school for good, The Sun’s Liz Bowie reported. The structure, it seemed, was beyond repair. Staff noticed that the building, atop a filled in lake, appeared to be sinking slowly each year.

Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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