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When the Castle Went Co-ed

Baltimore City College’s first class with women celebrates a 30th reunion.

Anita Allen was about five years old when her big brother, Alton, a student at Baltimore City College, came home in his marching-band uniform.

“I remember him wearing that big top hat and playing the saxophone, and I thought that was just so cool,” she says. A few years later, when Alton became the first of Allen’s 15 siblings to graduate from college, she thought, “I need to go to that high school.”

But although Anita Allen was among the best students in Northern Parkway Junior High School, and lived on Gorsuch Avenue, just a few blocks from City, attending Baltimore’s most prestigious high school was not an option. Since its founding in 1839, Baltimore City College, known as “the Castle on the Hill,” had always been an all-boys school.

And then, suddenly, it wasn’t.

The school closed in 1977 for a year of renovations, and the students moved to district headquarters on North Avenue. It re-opened in the fall of 1978 (even though renovations weren’t quite complete) as “the New Baltimore City College,” a co-educational high school. The girls and boys in the freshman class would have the school to themselves.

“Once they opened up the doors for females, I knew that was my opportunity and I had to get in,” says Allen, née Hill, who left her junior high school (which, like most at the time, went through 9th grade) a year early to join Baltimore City College’s class of 1982.

This month, Allen joins her fellow class of ’82 members to celebrate their 30th reunion. The class is notable both for being the first to include women, and for its stellar achievements, particularly among the women.

Veronica Jones-Freeman, the class president and the first female member of City’s Hall of Fame, is a finance manager for McCormick Company and has been the treasurer of the trustees of the Baltimore City College scholarship funds for more than a decade. Maria Price Detherage is the director of strategic programs for the Department of Health and Human Services. Deneen Fassett is a United States Postmaster in Baltimore County. Allen herself studies technology and is now a manager at Shield Consulting Solutions. Doctors, lawyers, and university administrators are all also among the class’s graduates.

From the first days of freshman year, it was clear that the women of the class of 1982 were uniquely ambitious, in everything from academics and extra-curricular activities to sports. Top achievers in middle schools and junior high schools throughout the city, they finally got the chance to shine at Baltimore’s most prestigious public historic high school—and they were determined to take advantage of it.

“From our moment of entry, we felt like this was an opportunity,” says Allen, who inspired a younger sister and brother to attend City, along with her daughter, Monet, who graduated in 2007, and her son, Phillip Allen III, who just finished his sophomore year there. “We knew that anything the women of our class did, it would be a historic moment.”

Neil Bernstein graduated from City in 1954, and has been active in the alumni association ever since. He first met the class of ’82 in the fall of 1978, when they were spending their freshman year in the basement of Eastern High School, the all-girls school near City, while the renovations were being completed.

To mark its 25th reunion the following year, the class of ’54 decided to give several $100 prizes to the top academic performers in the class of ’82, and Bernstein came to announce them to the students at an assembly.

“When I met those ladies and gentlemen, it was so refreshing to see how much they wanted to be there,” says Bernstein, who has served as president of the alumni association. “They came into a new environment, it was a co-ed school for the first time, they were in that basement, and yet they were excited.”

The move to make City co-ed came after a period when the future of the school was in doubt. There was a feeling that City had slipped in stature in the ’60s and early ’70s. The school board discussed making City a neighborhood school or shutting it down.

“The school system wanted the building taken down,” says Bernstein. “Allegedly, [Mayor] William Donald Schaefer and [Governor] Marvin Mandel, both City alumni, said ‘You ain’t gonna do that.'”

In addition to concerns about the quality of education, there was a national trend of integrating single-sex schools. A school board task force ultimately recommended that the school be shut down for renovations and re-opened as a co-ed magnet school.

“If they’d re-opened the school with inmates from Devil’s Island, I’d have been deliriously happy,” says Bernstein. “The fact that this wonderful school, which motivates people to incredible achievement, could be re-opened, I didn’t care who would be going there, as long as they were qualified to be college-preparatory students in a magnet school. The fact that it was co-educational didn’t make a difference to me.”

Bernstein helped convince alumni—some of whom were adamantly opposed to the change—to continue supporting their alma mater.

“The feeling was, if Western can stay all-girls, how come City can’t remain all-boys?” he recalls. “I said, ‘Here’s what we got: no school or some school with women. What’s your choice?’ We were just happy to get the school open with kids that wanted to be there.”

Over the years, Bernstein has watched with great pride as the class of ’82 proved to be one of the school’s most successful.

“I don’t know whether we put something in the water or what, but the ladies in that class—the gentlemen, too, but particularly the ladies—seemed to respond to what City College is all about,” he says. “Whenever I hear about a woman graduate doing something special, I say ‘Must be class of ’82.'”

In 1977, Deneen Fassett was an ambitious middle-school student who had planned to go to either Poly or Dunbar, until she heard that City was going co-ed.

“School was the priority in my house,” says Fassett, who grew up in Northwest Baltimore and took two buses to get to City. “When City announced that it would be co-ed, my mind was settled. The selling point was that we would be the first graduating class of ‘the new City,’ where girls would be allowed.”

Steve Williams, another class of ’82 grad and the current president of the Baltimore City College Alumni Association, says the school’s decision to go co-ed was pivotal to him as well. “That was one of the selling points: You can go to the Castle on the Hill, but now there’s going to be females,” he says. “New and improved, guys.”

Like a lot of aspiring athletes that went to City, Williams was also lured by the opportunity to participate in one of America’s great high-school football rivalries: the annual City-Poly game, which was played, usually on Thanksgiving, at Memorial Stadium until 1999. (It’s now played at M&T Bank Stadium.)

Williams keeps up a good-natured war of words with Baltimore Polytechnic Institute alumni. He refers to Poly as “that other school on Falls Road,” explaining with a smile, “I don’t curse, so I don’t use that other word.”

Unfortunately for its football squad, when the class of 1982 entered City, there were no upperclassmen, so they were forced to field teams with students from just a single class, taking on older, bigger, and more experienced opponents.

“We took our lumps,” says Williams, who was City’s starting quarterback for four years, and was also point guard on the basketball team and a pitcher for the baseball team. For all four of Williams’s years at City, Poly defeated them in the annual game. “It was tough, but we hung in there,” he says.

Even in sports, the girls of City outperformed the boys. The brand-new girl’s volleyball team faced the same challenges as the boys teams and, yet, it went undefeated for four straight years, winning four citywide titles. “We were proud,” says Anita Allen, who played on the team and was voted “most athletic” and “most versatile” in her senior year.

Class of ’82 grad David Johnson was also lured by the football program. “It sounded really cool to be able to play in a professional football venue on Thanksgiving day,” he says.

Spending freshman year in the basement of Eastern, among the girls attending the neighborhood school, proved to be as demanding as any contest on the gridiron. “They were some rough young ladies—big and tall, and I don’t think they were all that happy that we were there,” says Johnson. “We were the nerdy kids.”

But soon enough, the students moved into the newly renovated building. “It was like going to a brand new school,” says Fassett. “That was the best.”

Every subsequent year, a younger class joined the school, but the class of ’82 was always the oldest, the perennial “seniors.” Johnson, who is now academic director of web media and technology at University of Maryland, University College, thinks their status helped them mature, and taught them how to handle great responsibility.

“We grew up a little faster and made our own way,” he says. “We forged our own identity, and we were always looked up to.”

When the school re-opened in 1978, it also started with an almost entirely new faculty. Susan Legg had been teaching English in the Baltimore City Public Schools for a few years when she joined City that year.

“We were excited to be there,” says Legg, who still works at City as director of testing. “It was like a new school, new faculty—only one teacher was held over from the previous faculty—and it was an intellectually stimulating environment.”

Legg recalls the criticism of City before it closed down, in particular that it had “gotten away from its standards.” But, like Neil Bernstein, she was relieved to find that the new students were motivated to learn.

“They were good students,” she says. “They took a risk and came into something totally new. For most of them, it paid off.”

Class of ’82 grads say their unique situations—being the first co-ed class, the first in the renovated building, the oldest class for four years—helped them form and maintain a lasting bond. “We’re like a family, more than a class,” says Johnson.

Steve Williams joined the military after graduation and connected with alums around the globe, even while in Iraq.

“I saw the class ring from a distance in the chow hall—it was unmistakable,” says Williams, who retired from the military several years ago and now works in the human resources department of The Johns Hopkins University. “We got to talking the next day, remembering the school.”

To this day, Anita Allen distinctly remembers going up the tower at City to write her name on the wall that all City graduates sign, knowing that she would be among the first women to be entered there.

“You could see all of Baltimore from up there,” she says. “That was truly awesome.”