"Our job is to get ninth-graders ready for some of the best universities and colleges in the world," Baltimore City College physics teacher Michael Cameron declared in a booming voice Oct. 9.
Cameron, of Roland Park, was addressing a standing-room-only classroom. It was an annual middle school preview day for eighth-graders from public schools around the city, all curious to know what was so special about one of the nation's oldest and most prestigious public high schools — a stone, castle-shaped building so steeped in tradition that it calls itself "college" and its school song and signature salutation is "City Forever."
Cameron's own job on this morning was to impress the heck out of the eighth-graders, who were handpicked by their schools to apply to City College. He immediately put the wannabes to work on a daunting physics project to build the tallest standing tower they could, using only sheets of paper and tape.
Watching with personal satisfaction were City College sophomores Peter Kannam, of Roland Park, and his friend, Brooks Rubin, of Radnor-Winston, who were there as school ambassadors. They had won the same competition two years ago, as eighth-graders at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School. They recalled how they did it, rolling each piece of paper diagonally to make it longer. The resulting length?
As it celebrates its 175th anniversary, City College too stands tall.
"I think it's just really cool how long this school has been around," said Kannam, 15. "There's a real sense of history."
"This is a really great school," said Cameron, whose own son, Atticus, is a ninth-grader there. "We love showing it off."
City College officials, alumni and supporters have been doing a lot of that this month, starting with a heavily orchestrated press conference Oct. 2 outside the main entrance, where they unveiled a poster of the school by popular Roland Park artist Greg Otto, Class of 1961, who is known for his fanciful takes on Baltimore landmarks. The celebration will culminate with the annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the school on Oct. 24 and a black tie-optional gala the next night at Martin's Valley Mansion.
Otto, who was art editor of his high school yearbook and school newspaper, went on to graduate from the Maryland Institute, College of Art. He still remembers the artistic light turning on for him as a student at City College.
"If it had not been for the art curriculum, I would have never been introduced to the world of art," he said. "It opened my eyes."
Otto, who grew up in nearby Ednor Gardens, is still in awe of the spacious campus on a rise overlooking The Alameda, on the border of Waverly and Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello.
"It's a great-looking school," he said. "Who wouldn't want to go to a school that looked like this?"
Founded in 1839 with 46 students in a rented building, City College is the country's third-oldest public high school. It promotes itself in its online mission statement as "a citywide college preparatory institution with selective admissions" and "rigorous studies" and touts its International Baccalaureate program as a major hallmark. Cameron said only Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, known as Poly, has higher overall scores on state standardized tests.
"But they don't have the IB program," he said. "That's our gem."
"It's kind of an all-around school," said City College junior Sam Nass, of Mount Washington. He wants to be an engineer and disputes a public perception that Poly has the better engineering program.
City College receives about 2,000 applications a year for 340 seats. Its college acceptance rate for graduates is 99 percent. Thousands of universities send representatives to its annual college recruitment fair, officials say.
North Baltimore is well represented at City College, with Roland Park Elementary/Middle and the Mount Washington School being the number one and two feeder middle schools, according to City College Admissions Director Seth Hedderick.
While some high schools allow students to "shadow" them for a day, City College holds four middle school preview days, two in October and two in November, each one starting in the auditorium with a welcome by Head of School Cindy Harcum and performances by the school's cheerleading squad.
"It's a more wholesale approach," Hedderick said of the preview days. "We have so much interest."
Eighth-graders spend the mornings visiting classes and listening to short recruitment pitches by students like sophomore Toby Cormack, of Roland Park, who told the eighth-graders visiting the physics class that when he wears his City College sweatshirt around town, adults often come up to him and identify themselves as graduates of the school and the year they graduated.
City College's graduates include three current members of Congress, Sen. Ben Cardin and Reps. Elijah Cummings and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, as well as State Del. Curt Anderson, who represents North Baltimore's 43rd District, and former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke.
"There's something unique about City College," said Cardin, who spoke at the press conference. "It teaches you about life. It teaches you about leadership."
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Rich in history, the school is also rich in returnees.
"I can't tell you what kind of pride I have to be a graduate of this school, a former teacher at this school and now the head," said Harcum, 44.
J.D. Merrill, who grew up in Roland Park and now lives in Belair-Edison, is a 2009 graduate and a co-organizer of the 175th anniversary celebration. He earned his undergraduate degree in Educational Policy Studies from Davidson College in North Carolina and then came right back to City College, where he now teaches ninth grade Humanities and is working on his master's degree at Johns Hopkins University.