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Discord over music teacher's transfer


He's amiable and animated, and students at Towson High School say he understands the way their teen-age minds tick.

So they can't understand why their principal, Gwendolyn R. Grant, has decided to replace music teacher Jim Walker with an outsider, someone students say won't be able to match his enthusiasm or musical expertise.

"Ms. Grant is quick to say that Mr. Walker doesn't have the right leadership skills, but she has never seen him in class. ... She's never seen the way he motivates students," said Sarah Kendall, 18, a 12th-grader who is a member of Towson's vocal ensemble.

Recently, a group of Walker supporters led by 11th-grader Lucy Mitzner, 16, started a petition drive and collected more than 400 signatures representing about a third of Towson's student body.

Mitzner and her friends sent letters home to parents asking them to call Jean E. Satterfield, acting central area superintendent, to express support for Walker. The 11th-grader plans to address the Board of Education on Tuesday.

Grant, who spoke about the issue at a recent PTA meeting, is quick to point out that she helped bring Walker to the school six years ago. "He's a good teacher," she said.

However, when it was time to hire a new music department chairman, Walker, who had interviewed for the position, was not chosen.

And because Walker and the new department head are vocal music teachers -- the school is allowed only one -- Walker's transfer became necessary. His new assignment has not been made.

"I pick wonderful people for the students in this building," said Grant. "I was looking for a leader, and I selected the best candidate. ... The kids are talking about their feelings and not the experience of people interviewing for a position. ...

"The kids don't get to select their teachers. The principal has that responsibility, and I am fulfilling that responsibility."

Students say they can't understand why Grant would replace Walker, a 1979 Towson graduate who won the "School Spirit Award" last year and was the subject of a feature article in last year's edition of the school's literary magazine, colophon.

He teaches a full schedule of classes, including choir and music technology, in which students create pieces on electronic keyboards.

Walker also coaches the junior varsity lacrosse team.

His father taught physical education at Towson for four decades.

Walker, who lives a few blocks from the campus with his wife and four children, says he doesn't want to leave the school.

"When they told me that I wasn't going to be back at Towson, I was really hurt and shocked," said Walker, 39, who has taught music at county schools, including Milford Mill Academy and Arbutus Middle School, since 1990.

"I didn't see it coming," he said.

Parents and students suspect that Grant isn't telling them the whole story.

They say she calls it a personnel issue to avoid giving them details.

"There's a feeling that she is friendly with the person she's hired, but we don't know about that," said Towson parent Pat Mochel, one of several parents who are helping students fight the transfer.

Grant denies that the new teacher, whose name was unavailable, is a friend.

She has talked with several parents and students about the situation -- in her office and on the telephone.

"I don't know this person," Grant said, referring to the new teacher. "I [had] never met him before. He's from out of state. I wasn't even involved in looking for him."

Grant, however, sat in on interviews with candidates, along with Jamie Tucker, a supervisor in the schools' music department. Tucker served as a music expert during the interviews, said Clinton Marshall, the school system's music coordinator and Tucker's supervisor.

"Often, principals want the opinion of someone who is an expert," Marshall said. "Someone who knows music."

Marshall said his office has received two phone calls about Walker's transfer.

Satterfield's office has received a small number of calls. She issued this statement via e-mail: "Towson High School's music department will have new leadership for the 2001-2002 school year. However, because the school's new department chairman is a vocal music teacher and because student course registration only allows for one vocal music teacher, the current vocal music teacher ... will transfer to another school in Baltimore County. We are grateful for the fine contributions Mr. Walker has made to Towson High School during his tenure there."

Students have refused to give up their fight for Walker, who they say has brought the music department -- as well as musicals and group singing -- to a new level of popularity at Towson. They argue that he has the right vision for the department, despite what Grant says.

"He motivates kids who normally wouldn't want to perform," said Lucy Mitzner. "We can't hold a grudge against this new [teacher], but it won't be the same."

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