Tradition-minded leaders heading historic schools


Together, they've inherited 261 years of Baltimore tradition and education history.

They head schools with more than 30,000 living alumni, many in positions of power and authority around the world.

She's a rookie principal in her 27th year in Baltimore schools. After 20 years in the system, he's in his first assignment as head of an elite senior high school.

And Anne Carusi, at Western High School, and Ian (pronounced eye-an) Cohen, at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, are as excited as puppies at a picnic, full of plans for their schools, and are even considering launching cooperative efforts across the real and psychological walls that separate the two schools at Falls Road and Cold Spring Lane.

"It has been a solid wall," said Mr. Cohen, 43, who took over Poly in August, replacing Albert W. Strickland, who resigned. "We want to do everything we can to be good neighbors. Anne and I have been friends for a long time, so this is a natural."

Ms. Carusi, 49, took over Western in August, just three months before the nation's oldest (and one of two) public high schools for girls marks its 150th anniversary. The sesquicentennial celebration is scheduled the first week in November.

Poly, the math/science/engineering magnet next door, is a mere youngster at 111. Poly began accepting girls in the mid-1970s, a move still considered sinful in some circles.

Poly-Western, Western-Poly are intertwined in the Baltimore pTC psyche, though the two institutions followed much different paths before they converged in North Baltimore three decades ago.

Each is steeped in tradition, and each changes principals (Poly's head is called a "director") about as often as cicadas mass on Mount Washington lawns.

Although Mr. Cohen is the fifth director at Poly since 1980, the school had had but three heads in the previous six decades. Western, incredibly, has had but 12 principals in a century and a half. Ms. Carusi's predecessor, Sandra L. Wighton, who was promoted to an area assistant superintendency, served 15 years.

A 5-foot 4-inch woman with a smile that could light a study hall, Ms. Carusi could not have attended Western before it was racially desegregated in the 1950s.

Mr. Cohen is every inch the director. His salt-and-pepper hair, mustache and no-nonsense demeanor give him an air of authority, and he says he is "very much a traditionalist."

Both principals want to restore traditions that have died, often because the financially stressed system couldn't afford them.

Mr. Cohen wants to get music, all but abandoned, back into the curriculum, restart the student newspaper and get the Poly band back on the field at halftime. The school's enrollment, 1,060, is about 200 students below its optimum level, he said.

Ms. Carusi has plans, too. She wants to resurrect Future Educators of America (formerly Future Teachers of America), a student organization of aspiring teachers.

The Western principal also wants to find ways to help her students "grow into womanhood and into productive citizens. You know, we don't have social workers or psychologists, so we need to find other ways to help these young women with everything from undergoing a successful job interview to nutrition to sexuality."

Both principals can take a visitor to computer labs where students work on state-of-the-art equipment. In Western's lab, students practice art and graphics on computers arranged in a semi-circle. At Poly, James Matalavage's drafting students do it all by computer in a laboratory provided by the school's alumni association.

Western's successful resistance to coeducation is something of a miracle.

Whenever a male has seriously sought admission, officials have referred him to a college preparatory program elsewhere in Baltimore (including Poly's). Since Western is a selective school specializing in the liberal arts, the strategy has worked thus far, though a serious legal challenge to Western's single-sex status has never been mounted.

"I'd like to retain it as single-sex for as long as possible," said Ms. Carusi. "This is a critical time in the lives of young women. There's a kind of reinforcement here, a bouncing off, a springboard for testing your femaleness. If you bomb and are not so successful, there's an air of comfort here. You're also free to try some different themes you couldn't do with a coed population. You can talk about sexuality, for example, from a different vantage point and say things in different ways than if it were a coed school."

Mr. Cohen came to Poly directly from the principalship of Chinquapin Middle School, but in an earlier incarnation he was assistant principal at Western.

"This means I know where the doors are between Western and Poly," he chuckled. "I know my way around the whole complex."

He and Ms. Carusi are opening a few of those doors, not as an introduction to merger, they say, but as a way of practicing economy of scale and opening portals in each school to the students of the other.

They've formed a Poly-Western committee, and Western students are occupying a couple of Poly classrooms. There's also talk of a Poly-Western musical production next spring, to be staged in the Poly-Western auditorium -- the one thing the schools share.

Meanwhile, both principals are excited.

"I would never have dreamed I'd end up one day as principal of this school," said Ms. Carusi.

"I'm still on Cloud 9," said her neighbor.

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