A more high-tech vision for Poly

Charles Johnson-Bey, Barney J. Wilson does not see a mess when he looks at the darkened hallways of Polytechnic Institute, with their half-painted stairwells and rows of desks that have been banished from classrooms during summertime cleaning.

He sees a blank canvas.


In his mind's eye, the school's new principal sees the hallways, the gym, the cafeteria filled with Internet-equipped computer stations, as ubiquitous as water fountains.

He sees youngsters' hip-hop garb replaced (with their consent) by crisp uniforms designed by fellow students.


And where there are now nondescript workrooms filled with battered drafting tables and wood-cutting machines, Wilson envisions sleek, multipurpose labs equipped for the study of engineering in the 21st century.

"Students come here for an exciting education, and we want to give it to them," said Wilson, who graduated from Poly in 1976 and is the school's first African-American principal.

The 45-year-old married father of two, who has been an engineer, business owner and college administrator, has generated a lot of buzz since he was named last month to lead his alma mater, one of the state's top-performing high schools.

The word on the street is that Wilson has a clear vision about how Poly can earn a spot on the national stage.

Along with new engineering labs and computers, Wilson wants to see a new curriculum developed by Poly teachers after they study and borrow ideas from top science schools across the country. He also wants to form partnerships with universities so Poly students can learn from professors.

"Poly scored such a home run," said Charles Johnson-Bey, a Morgan State University professor and 1984 Poly graduate. "He's going to help it gain prominence."

Raised in Northwest Baltimore by his parents, a police officer and a nurse, Wilson was one of five brothers who graduated from Poly. He triple-majored in electrical engineering, economics and math at Carnegie Mellon University, and later earned a master's in business administration.

After a stint in the corporate world, Wilson started two successful businesses, a landscaping and cleaning company and later a consulting firm that found minority vendors for Fortune 500 companies.


In a short-lived but memorable venture, Wilson started a professional wrestling federation in Baltimore that held matches at nearby armories starring B-list celebrities such as The Smoke, a wrestler widely believed to be The Rock's cousin, and a Hulk Hogan look-alike named Hawk Hogan.

Since 1987, Wilson has also taught or served as an administrator at local colleges, including Coppin State University and the Community College of Baltimore County. In 2002, he earned a doctorate in educational leadership from Morgan State University.

When Wilson saw a newspaper advertisement last spring seeking a new principal for Poly, he knew his next move.

"I thought, 'This is incredible. I've been preparing all my life for this kind of opportunity,'" said Wilson, who eventually beat out a field of 60 job candidates.

The school remains as he remembers it, full of "eager and brilliant" students. But Wilson feels that it needs updating to compete with the country's top science and engineering schools.

Beyond the traditional fields of electrical, chemical, mechanical and civil engineering, he said, Poly students need to be exposed to subjects such as biomedical engineering and artificial intelligence.


"We want them to be cutting-edge," said Wilson, who wears tailored business suits and shiny shoes. "We want them to leave [Poly] and lead their college classes."

Wilson concedes that his plans for Poly, such as the new labs, will be harder to realize because of the financial problems threatening the city school system. That's why he is not counting on support from the central administration. Instead, he is trolling among alumni and universities for money and other help.

Poly alumnus Ron Curry, chief executive officer of the Baltimore computer hardware maintenance firm Neo Technologies, said he wants to help his former schoolmate.

"We're going to do everything that we can to support his vision, and if it takes us making a financial contribution ... I don't see why we wouldn't," said Curry, a 1978 graduate.

Wilson also plans to roll up his sleeves and do some of the work himself. He has already given the front steps a good once-over with weed killer. And before school starts, he and a team of parent, student and community volunteers will spruce up the campus by tearing down vines overtaking the school's walls, picking up trash and painting classrooms.

Nancy Syntax, who has had six children attend Poly, is excited about the new energy Wilson is bringing and pleased that he is a Poly parent. One of Wilson's daughters attends the school, and the other, a 13-year- old, plans to seek admission after she finishes middle school.


"He's walking into a group of parents who are there for him," Syntax said.

Some former students hope that Wilson's presence will attract younger and African-American alumni back to Poly. The alumni association is mostly white, although the school's student body is now 70 percent black.

For William H. Murphy Jr., a prominent lawyer and former Baltimore judge who said he experienced racism as one of the few black students at Poly in the late 1950s, Wilson's selection means that old wounds may now be healed.

"Having the first African-American principal makes me feel that my struggle at Poly was not in vain," Murphy said. "I want to be as helpful to him as possible."

Wilson said he moves easily in different circles because of his personal and business backgrounds, and he plans to be inclusive.

"It gives me a unique opportunity to bring everyone to the table and show that we have more in common than we do different," Wilson said. "It's [that] we're pretty much all smart."


Barney J. Wilson, 45, of Reisterstown

Born and raised in Northwest Baltimore

Wife, Felecia, and two daughters, ages 13 and 16

Graduated Polytechnic Institute, 1976

Bachelor's and master's degrees from Carnegie Mellon University, and doctorate from Morgan State University

Former businesses include a professional wrestling federation and a firm that found minority vendors for large companies


Teacher and administrator at Coppin State University, the University of Baltimore and the Community College of Baltimore County