No oven mitts, no spatulas, no sewing needles -- this is not your mother's home ec class.
In this classroom, girls at Baltimore City's Western High School are doing some intellectual cooking. The topic of discussion is child development. It's possible to change the sex of an unborn child through genetic engineering, teacher Carol Henkle tells her students, but is it right? Is it moral?
Some of the girls are restless, leaning on outstretched arms or flipping through loose-leaf binders. Others listen intently; they voice strong opinions, some suggesting that scientists are wrong in tampering with nature. There are no right or wrong answers, Mrs. Henkle tells the girls.
There are only personal choices, the type of choices Western students may have to make one day. The type of choices for which a public high school must prepare tomorrow's leaders. The type of choices that were not included in the curriculum when the school was founded 150 years ago to train girls as primary school teachers.
Then, the Westernite's education was grammar, rhetoric, arithmetic and geography, a course load lighter than that offered at the city high school for boys. The Western girl would graduate to a teaching career -- if she would have one at all -- and in it she'd earn about half what male counterparts would. Eventually, she would marry and become a mother. These were not choices; they were expectations.
Home economics wasn't a subject for the classroom back in 1844; good girls received plenty of proper training in these matters at home.
A 150-YEAR CHALLENGE
This week, as Western students and alumnae don the costumes past eras to celebrate the school's sesquicentennial, they will be reminded of those times past when girls' options were limited.
"They certainly have more choices than they had 150 years ago, even more than they had 20 years ago," said Mrs. Henkle of today's seniors. "They don't have to have children. They don't have to get married. But they need information so they will be prepared to make those choices."
Western's challenge today is to uphold its mission to give young women "the best and most appropriate secondary education available" -- at a time when the definition of what is appropriate is constantly being revised.
Keeping up with change has never been enough for some Westernites; blazing trails has been more to their taste. The school's evolution has closely mirrored the bursts of progress achieved by and for women during the last 150 years. And after a century and a half, Western can boast a reputation of academic excellence; its students regularly score above citywide averages on standardized tests.
"If things are going to happen in this world, it is because women are going to make them happen," said Anne Carusi, who became Western's principal in August. "And if they are going to do that later, they need the guidance now."
By encouraging the development of sisterhood, integrity and confidence through academic achievement, Western once was radical -- teaching strength at a time when women weren't expected to display it. Now the school must continue to evolve -- to prepare girls to be the effective leaders society assumes they will be.
"It does prepare young women to face the world," said Sandra L. Wighton, who after 15 years as Western's principal was promoted this summer to assistant superintendent of city schools in the Southeast area. "That may sound like an awful cliche -- since every commencement speaker in the country says that about every high school and college -- but it is absolutely true. It's just that sometimes, the world wasn't ready for them."
In November of 1844, 36 girls carried writing slates to classes in arithmetic, grammar and geography in the two rooms of Armitage Hall at 100 N. Paca St. They were pioneers, taking advantage of one of the first opportunities for women in this country for a public education beyond grammar school.
The city had just established a Female High School on the east side of the city (Eastern) and another on the west (Western).
For five years, Baltimore boys already had been advancing from grammar schools to the High School, which later became Baltimore City College. (The city's next boys high school, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, would not be established for more than 40 years.)
Rhetoric, logic and elocution courses taught the girls to be persuasive orators. Years later, when the classes became larger, the girls elected class officers and a student council. These were their foundations for practicing leadership.
"Western reflected the needs of women at that historical point," says Michael Franko, head of the school's guidance department. "It provided a sound education to the students and with that the girls could do anything they wanted to do and that society would allow them to do, which, of course, wasn't always the same thing."
Still, some pioneers veered off the expected career track. Henrietta Szold, class of 1877, and the school's first Alumni Association president, used her training to teach English to Russian immigrants. She later co-founded Hadassah, the influential women's Zionist organization.
By 1900, Western had moved three times (its current site at Falls Road and West Cold Spring Lane is its seventh). It had expanded the curriculum from three years to four.
On the pages of its yearbook, the class of 1907 sketched career options for its members: a whirling belle of the ball, a nurse, a nun, a graceful dancer. The editors surmised that Westernites "will most probably enter the noose matrimonial, which is common place."
By 1912, a college preparatory curriculum had been developed, but a university education remained out of reach for many women until well into the 20th century. In the 1930s, domestic science courses, such as sewing and cooking, were offered in addition to traditional liberal arts.
"The school was teaching girls how to excel, but very few of my classmates went on to college," recalled 1933 graduate Rosalie Silber Abrams, director of the state Office on Aging and a former state senator. In 1933, her family would not pay for more education they did not think she needed, she said. She earned her bachelor's degree in political science at Johns Hopkins University 20 years later.
"I think women were beginning to get some education," she said, "but my father thought it was more important for my five brothers to get to college than it was for me to go."
World War II opened factory doors to women. One hundred years after Western's founding, students were graduating early to go to manual labor jobs -- at least until the men came back from war.
"Mostly girls who weren't headed to college anyway would go to school throughout the summer, the point being that they could ** help with the war efforts sooner," said Betty J. (Beyer) Ammons, a librarian and a 1944 graduate who watched friends take that route. "The school worked very hard trying to prepare these girls
as Victory Volunteers. It showed true spirit."
The school's first century established not only an academic sanctuary for the girls, but a culture and community where they had to define and assert themselves. Westernites understood the privileges that the single-sex setting offered, and the atmosphere of security and camaraderie that it fostered.
"We were used to being everything, the president of the student council, president of the class," said Nancy S. Grasmick, a Western honor student from the class of 1957 and the state superintendent of schools. "That expectation was there to be a leader."
But the setting wasn't insulated from what was going on in the world outside, including the civil rights movement.
Myrtle Mack-Dutton walked onto Western's campus at Howard and Centre streets under police protection in 1954. She was an apprehensive 10th-grader, accompanied by a few other African-Americans. They were there to integrate Western. Until the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education court decision, African-Americans had never attended this public school.
"I was volunteered to go, but it was the best push I ever had," said Ms. Mack-Dutton, who graduated with her friend Nancy Streeks -- now Nancy Grasmick -- in 1957. Black students were expected to attend the coeducational Negro high schools such as Douglass and Dunbar. "It was a different world [at Western], much more academically oriented than what I had been used to. I actually broke a blood vessel in my eye from studying so hard," said Ms. Mack-Dutton.
She and her classmates soon realized that the Western spirit of sisterhood could stretch across racial lines. During a local outing with the school singing club, the Treblettes, a cafe waitress refused to serve Ms. Mack-Dutton.
"I didn't want to go in there in the first place, but I sat there feeling angry and embarrassed," Ms. Mack-Dutton recalls. "But the girls -- they had already ordered -- said, 'If she doesn't get served, we don't eat,' and they left their food right there and walked out with me.
"They could have ignored me and let me sit there feeling bad. I was surprised. I wasn't expecting that kind of back up," Ms. Mack-Dutton. "It was our own little boycott."
The transition wasn't perfect. A few teachers "let me know how they felt about my color," Ms. Mack-Dutton remembered, but most students seemed to accept the black pupils.
Eva Scott didn't get a warm reception when the city school board assigned her to teach physical education at Western in 1958. When she called the school to set up an interview with principal Nanette R. Blackiston, she was rejected.
"The conversation consisted of my insisting that the [assignment] letter stated that we were to set a date for an interview, and my being told that I was not coming to Western," Mrs. Scott recalled. Eventually, she overcame obstacles to become the school's first black teacher. In 1959, she became director of the physical education department, a position she holds today.
"This is what I wanted to do, and the department was good, and those in the department became loyal friends," said Mrs. Scott.
By 1960, Western had long ceased its role as a training school for teachers. Some graduates became prominent in fields such as theater and politics. Sarah Tilghman Hughes, for example, became a U.S. District Court judge in Texas in 1961. She administered the presidential oath to Lyndon B. Johnson aboard Air Force One after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.
For other students, Western didn't seem to be advancing fast enough.
Beverly (Grodnitzky) Burns recalled telling a guidance counselor that she wanted a career that would let her see the world. Her counselor encouraged her to try her wings as a flight attendant.
"What about being a pilot? She never mentioned being a pilot at all," said Mrs. Burns, scowling at the memory. The 1967 graduate now works for Continental Airlines. She was the first woman in the world to captain a 727 aircraft and the first to captain a 747 jumbo jet. "There's nothing wrong with being a flight attendant, but when I went in there I should have been given the full range of options."
Mr. Franko, the guidance department head, recalled, "Western in the '50s and '60s was a little girls' finishing school. The girls were taught then to be nurses, teacher, secretaries. Those were the options."
But times were a'changing.
"In the late '60s and early '70s there was a sense of revolt in the land," Mr. Franko said. "The girls were beginning to question their position in society, and when that change occurred, Western, like it always has, reflected that."
ONE FOR ALL?
During the next decade, reforms including Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prompted many to question the need for single-sex public schools in Baltimore and around the country. The amendment barred the spending of federal funds on educational programs open exclusively to a single sex. It helped erode the gender-based barriers that had blocked the paths to many professions.
By the mid-1970s, Poly, the boys' high school that sits next door to Western, and City, across town, had gone coed.
By the early 1980s, despite outcry from alumni, declining enrollment forced Eastern to admit boys. The school later was merged with Lake Clifton Senior High.
According to education officials, there is only one other all-girls public high school in the country: the Philadelphia High School for Girls, which opened four years after Western.
Though Western's all-girls classification has been assailed many times, state administrators still contend that the school does not violate the federal law.
"Every year I get at least one letter challenging Western's single-sex status," said Dr. Grasmick, the Western alumna and state superintendent of schools. "The truth is, if a boy wishes to get a coed education in one of the courses in Western's curriculum, it is available -- somewhere else."
Dr. Grasmick wants to see the school continue to serve girls, but not necessarily for sentimental reasons.
"The state has set performance standards and as you look at schools in Baltimore City, Western is clearly at the top, or is the top," she said. "As I look at it as far as its effectiveness, Western is extremely successful. I think there is a rationalization now that, particularly for girls, students are faring better in single-sex situations."
During the past 20 years, about 85 percent of Western's graduates have advanced to college; about 55 percent of the city's graduates have, according to school officials. The dropout rate has been low: During the 1991-1992 school year, city schools had a 16.4 percent dropout rate while Western's was 1 percent. Western girls outscored city students overall on Maryland standard reading and math tests for the same year.
The expectation of Western girls is that they'll fare better in this educational environment; it pervades the school's recruitment rhetoric, the campus culture and the expressions of pride heard so often from the alumnae. However, in 1994, success for Western means preparing 1,250 girls to find their way in a world that now bombards them with options -- some not so healthy.
"Western of 1994 is facing the same societal problems that every other high school in the nation is facing, and that makes it even more crucial that the students here understand why there are at Western," said Sandra Wighton, the former principal. "The significance of their task here at Western is apparent as the girls get to junior and senior years, but it is getting harder and harder for the ninth- and 10th-grade girls to understand and conform to those ideals."
Although they still wear white on Senior Day and sing the same songs as past students, these aren't the same Westernites. They've grown up with working mothers, with rap music, with warnings about AIDS -- in other words, with less innocence than previous generations of girls.
Zakia Richburg, a senior at Western, said she watches the new groups of girls arrive each year. They come to school wearing clinging dresses and complicated hairdos, these girls who believe they are more sophisticated than their predecessors.
"Every year we'd talk about that, about how the freshman class each year gets more grown," Zakia said.
But the environment they've entered discourages distractions. Western doesn't have problems with weapons or illegal substances, said Cynthia Sanders, the school police officer, who roams the quiet hall mainly to provide a presence. No serious incidents have occurred since her watch began last fall, she said.
Fluorescent posters warning against teen pregnancy dot the yellow cinder-block walls throughout the school.
"I'm worried about those girls who think they have to have a baby to be something," said Principal Carusi, an alumna of Eastern High School. "I'm working to make them realize that there are good things about being a young lady -- and I'm not talking about the white gloves and prim-proper attitude, either.
"It's about being worthwhile, being in touch with yourself so you can give something important back to others."
Edie House, a 1968 Western graduate and a local advertising executive, says this has been one of the school's lessons since its founding.
"Even back in 1844, regardless of the mores of the period right then, she [a Western student] has always had a sense of 'I can achieve. I am not the weaker sex.'
"You are part of a tradition that makes you want to contribute to society something positive. I don't know about the girls in 1994, but I hope that's still the thinking."
For many, it is, senior Mellanie Lee confirmed. She is completing Western's business college preparatory track, one of three academic tracks now offered. Students now may choose business college preparatory, college preparatory or advanced college preparatory course loads. For Senior Day, Mellanie proudly helped decorate the auditorium in her class colors -- purple and gold.
"I know I have the basics to go out and work anywhere in marketing or finance," she said. "I know Western has prepared me to actually go out in the world and succeed. That's what this school does for you."
Preparing the students to enter the global marketplace with the best tools at their disposal is one of Mrs. Carusi's goals.
"We live in an information age. We are consumers, overwhelmed by the amount of information available and it is a priority for these girls to learn to manipulate that," she said.
The task before her doesn't fit together quite as neatly as the jigsaw puzzle depicting children from different cultures that covers her table top.
"For more than a century, this school has been all girls and has had high academic standards. And I don't see that changing anytime soon," she said. "And while it's important to keep that, we do not know if it will look this way in the 2000s.
"I don't know exactly what it will look like, but I know it will look like part of the past, and that gives us a view of the future."
TRACI JOHNSON MATHENA is a free-lance writer living i Owings Mills and a 1988 graduate of Western High School.