Navy Secretary Donald C. Winter had never spoken at a high school before. But when U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings asked him to take a few hours out of his busy schedule to drive to West Baltimore and speak at a school with a maritime focus, Winter was happy to oblige. After all, he said, the Navy ought to be looking for younger recruits.
Between the time the visit was scheduled and the time Winter appeared at the school yesterday, a lot happened at Maritime Industries Academy. Accused of grade falsification and letting a student teach classes, Principal Marco T. Clark has, over the past three weeks, resigned, changed his mind and tried to rescind the resignation. The assistant principal, Kevin Brooks, was placed on administrative leave, but then reinstated.
At a school board meeting Tuesday night, students, teachers and parents pleaded with board members to give them their leader back. They held up signs saying they'd been "bamboozled," quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ("injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere"), and demanded of school system officials, "How dare you, how DARE you, convict someone of something before an investigation?"
With emotions so raw, some questioned whether it would be best to cancel Winter's visit, or at least postpone it. But Gen. Bennie E. Williams, chief of staff to schools chief Andres Alonso, didn't want to let the students down. The visit to the school, at 790 W. North Ave., would go on.
And so yesterday at 1:30 p.m., the Maritime color guard stood at attention. Classes were dismissed, and 300 students in burgundy shirts and black pants filed into the overheated cafeteria, where a giant American flag was draped from the ceiling. Speaking into a microphone, Brooks asked teachers to keep everyone "collected and focused."
The school stood to welcome its honored guest, who wore a navy blazer, gray pants and a red, ivory and blue tie. After the Pledge of Allegiance, Brooks led students in "Lift Every Voice and Sing" and "The Star-Spangled Banner." Then he introduced Cummings, whom he called a "committed educator."
As chairman of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, Cummings is trying to help the school live up to its mission. He initiated a guest speaker series so students can hear about different maritime-related careers.
The congressman took the podium and said, "In light of recent events, passions among parents and students are running high. Today's event, however, has nothing to do with that."
Cummings spoke about his fondness for the Maritime Industries Academy, which, he said has "no shortage of outstanding students." He saluted some of the dozens of local politicians and maritime industry leaders in the audience, including a Baltimore County councilman, Maryland's transportation secretary and the deputy administrator of the U.S. Maritime Administration. To Winter, Cummings said, "I cannot tell you how grateful I am."
The secretary took the podium shortly before 2. He started off by showing on a screen set up in front of the flag a Navy recruitment advertisement that resembled a rock video. He talked about the reasons that people join the armed forces: to see the world, to further their education, to serve their country.
"We want you," Winter said. "We need you. We need many, many people. We need the best people we can get. ... We make an effort to reach out to all walks of life. ... We're committed to developing the diversity of our Navy."
He offered a few fast facts about the work of the Navy and the Marine Corps, which he also oversees, with personnel totaling 900,000. Seventy percent of the Earth's surface is covered by water. Eighty percent of the world's population lives close to an ocean. Ninety percent of the world economy travels by sea.
He told students to "act in such a way that we are comfortable having you." The Navy, he said, is looking for "drug-free behavior."
Then, at 2:10, Winter said he would be happy to take questions. Brooks quickly took the microphone back, asking the students to give the secretary a standing ovation. "I know your schedule is very busy because there is a war," he said, leading the students in Maritime's school song as Winter and Cummings were ushered out.
Asked later why students didn't have an opportunity to ask questions, Cummings said he didn't see any hands raised. "We have a tight schedule," he said. "We made a commitment to keep it on time." Brooks said other speakers will come to Maritime to answer students' questions about the Navy.
Jerome Spence, 14, peered into the room where school officials and staff members from Cummings' office were eating sandwich wraps. He was looking for Winter, who was already headed back to Washington. "Is he here?" the boy asked. "He said if we wanted to talk to him ... "
Eighteen-year-old Ebboni Ruley, the company commander for the school's naval JROTC unit, was a little disappointed that she did not get to hear from Winter. She had left the cafeteria to put the color guard equipment away and missed the speech. But, she said with a smile, "I got to shake his hand. Twice."
For more on Maritime Industries Academy, see The Sun education blog at www.baltimoresun.com/InsideEd.