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Exterior of Western High School at 4600 Falls Road.
Exterior of Western High School at 4600 Falls Road. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

This month, Baltimore’s Western High School launched a year-long celebration of its 175th anniversary as the oldest all-girls public school in the nation. Prior to Western’s founding in 1844, there had been no opportunity for city girls to get an education beyond grammar school. The school’s location changed many times over the decades to accommodate its growth. In September 1967, the current school was opened, sharing a large modern campus with the then all-male Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. The combination of two school buildings, with a shared interior greenspace, the “quad,” became one of the largest high school campuses constructed in America.

Western’s motto of Lucem Accepimus, Lucem Demus (We receive light, let us give light) has inspired graduates to innovate and achieve. Notable alumnae include Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah, the largest Jewish women’s organization in the U.S.; Dr. Claribel and Etta Cone, prescient art collectors; Anna Deveare Smith, actress/playwright and NYU professor; Sen. Jill Carter; Nancy Grasmick, former Maryland state superintendent of schools; Stephanie Hill, senior vice president of Lockheed Martin and the first female board chair of the Greater Baltimore Committee; former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake; Sabina Kelly, market president for Bank of America; and Ceasefire founder Erricka Bridgeford.

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The work of actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith includes "Fires in the Mirror" and "Twilight: Los Angeles." The graduate of Baltimore's Western High School also played national security advisor Nancy McNally on NBC's "The West Wing."
The work of actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith includes "Fires in the Mirror" and "Twilight: Los Angeles." The graduate of Baltimore's Western High School also played national security advisor Nancy McNally on NBC's "The West Wing." (Mary Ellen Mark, special to The Baltimore Sun)

Looking back, it seems as if these leaders had smooth sailing — wonderful facility, inspiring alumnae and a certain path toward achievement. Not so fast: Don’t forget, Western students have often faced adversity through societal change and the rocky backdrop of life in Baltimore.

As an initial project to engage current Western students in the historic anniversary, Principal Michelle White called for essays on the topic of “My Western Legacy.” The best entrant will be honored at a commemoration ceremony including statewide dignitaries. Judges included alumnae of various ages from the classes of 1952 through 1998, representing distinct eras of change for Baltimore and Western. To kick off the process, each judge told her personal Western story, openly revealing painful experiences due to race, gender and the impact of challenging, historic times in Baltimore.

During my years, 1970-1974, I remember a sense of optimism about greater opportunities for women and African Americans in Baltimore and the world. Perhaps naively, we believed society had reached a lasting turning point. But current student essays reveal personal adversity and wariness about their futures. They are certainly affected by the relentless bad news they have experienced in Baltimore and the nation over the past several years. Still, Western has prepared them well.

Dunnock was also a graduate of Western High School.
Dunnock was also a graduate of Western High School. (W. Ross Dunaway, The Baltimore Sun)

“Despite societal expectations that I as an African American woman will fail, I refuse to fail,” one young woman wrote. “My legacy will be that of great persistence in the face of daily difficulties.”

Why is our 175-year old public all-girls school particularly effective in supporting the journey of young women encountering unsettling societal change and the simple challenge of growing up? Three reasons: legacy, resilience and sisterhood.

“The Western girl” has been a positive phrase over decades and is a mantel current students carry to this day. She no longer wears dresses and gloves as she did in 1844, but she stands dignified, proud and purposeful. As the essayists described, she knows she will face obstacles, but she has an “obligation” to live up to the Western legacy. Recently I asked a group of juniors what adjectives describe the Western girl today. Their answers were “educated” “confident” and most resoundingly, “determined.”

Henrietta Szold of Baltimore was a humanitarian and founder of adult education for immigrants in the United States. She also founded Hadassah, the largest Jewish women's organization in the United States. She was inducted into the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame in 1986 and the National Women's Hall of Fame in 2007.
Henrietta Szold of Baltimore was a humanitarian and founder of adult education for immigrants in the United States. She also founded Hadassah, the largest Jewish women's organization in the United States. She was inducted into the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame in 1986 and the National Women's Hall of Fame in 2007. (Photo courtesy of Enoch Pratt Free Library)

The Western girl’s resilience comes from the school’s academic rigors, as well from daily life among a large number of energetic students. We say: The more the mightier. Western girls are instilled with the ability to make their way — and leave their distinctive mark — among 1,000-plus Western sisters. Through the years, our young women learn to step forward to meet unknown students every week and to stand out in the crowd with increasing assuredness.

And we Western girls rely heavily, and, yes, emotionally, on our school sisters to pull us through tough academics and our lives in Baltimore. The National Coalition of Girls’ Schools (NCGS) cites a national survey of 7,223 seniors from both all-girl and co-ed high schools. The study found 90% of girls’ school students report feeling supported by other students compared to 73% of girls at coed schools. According to Megan Murphy, NCGS Executive Director, “Not only do girls (in all-girl schools) receive a wealth of avenues for self-exploration and development, they also see a wealth of peer role models. Girls need to ‘see it, to be it’ to make them aware of the possibilities in their own lives.”

Baltimore needs citizens who are not only academically prepared but wise to the world, resilient and purposeful. As Western girls — current students and alumnae of all ages — we will face adversity, and we will achieve. After all, Western armed us with joy and fire in our hearts; we call it “light.”

Carolyn O’Keefe (carolynok.usa@gmail.com) is chair of the 175 Years of Light Committee and Western High School Foundation.

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