Once, Columbia's Wilde Lake High School was synonymous with academic success. But in recent years, this suburban town's oldest high school has been rocked by disciplinary and academic turmoil that caused some to worry the institution was floundering.
Now, an extraordinary 91-point increase in SAT scores has propelled Wilde Lake to second among high schools in what many people believe is the region's best school district.
Under a new principal and with new programs, Wilde Lake's average score soared to 1,118 out of a possible 1,600 -- only 25 points behind Ellicott City's Centennial High, often described as the county's best high school.
Perhaps more important, the recently released SAT results from the last school year show Wilde Lake's performance was 34 points above the county's average of 1,084, the highest in the Baltimore region. The SAT is the main college entrance exam for students in the eastern and northeastern United States and tests math and verbal skills.
Superintendent Michael E. Hickey described the scores as "very definitely" important, calling it a return to the school's rich academic history.
"Back in the old days, probably when I first came here 15 years ago Wilde Lake was always one of the top schools in SAT scores and other test scores for that matter," Hickey said. "Even in the initial years of my tenure here, they were kind of running neck and neck with Centennial.
"I think what you see emerging now is a trend back to the high status and high performance of Wilde Lake as it used to be."
Equally enthusiastic was Principal Roger Plunkett, a strict leader who took the helm at Wilde Lake last year .
"I was very pleased," Plunkett said of the results. "We know that our students have the same academic abilities as [students at] any other school. We just have to set high expectations and students will meet those high expectations."
Principal makes changes
The surge in SAT results -- which ends three years of declining scores -- comes after a series of initiatives aimed at improving academic performance and squashing disruptive behavior. In one of the most controversial moves, Plunkett imposed restrictions on a "supervised study" option that had allowed students to leave core classes two days a week to take elective courses.
Despite protests from parents and students who wanted to keep the tradition intact, Plunkett said the change was necessary because some abused the option instead of using it to push themselves academically.
Wilde Lake also started an ambitious in-house academic support system made up of 13 clubs. There is a support group for children of separated and divorced parents, a counselor-athlete program, a reading program and Princesses of Imani and Nia, a club for African-American girls.
"Those 13 programs have made a difference at Wilde Lake High School," Plunkett said at a recent school board meeting. "We say every day on the [public announcement system], 'Our focus is academics at Wilde Lake.' "
Behavior has changed
The school has cracked down on disruption as well. After a popular science teacher died of a heart attack after breaking up a campus fight, students formed an anti-violence group and rules were posted prominently throughout the school.
In August, probation officer Susan McFadden joined Wilde Lake as part of the statewide "Spotlight on Schools" program, in which an officer supervises students who are on probation. During a news conference about Wilde Lake's participation in the program in September, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said that fights at the school had dropped from a high of about two a week to two a semester.
A return of pride
Hickey credited Plunkett's leadership and the efforts of his staff for the turnaround. However, he noted that the seeds for change were planted even before Plunkett joined Wilde Lake.
"I think one of the biggest things is re-establishing a sense of pride on the part of that student community and a sense on the part of the staff that they could do it," Hickey said. "I think it's pretty easy to get down and discouraged when year after year you're coming in at the bottom of the heap on test scores and you know your students are capable of doing much better than that.
"I know that it was good cheer for the staff over there and for the students to see that kind of payoff."
Plunkett said he wants to work on improving all of Wilde Lake's test scores and lowering the school's dropout rate. In the meantime, he hopes the recent good news is a source of pride for the school.
"People have to realize that Wilde Lake's always been a good school," Plunkett said. "People can see it now in our scores and the things that we are doing."
Pub Date: 12/03/98