Education & Family

Dear Western

Alumnae of the country’s oldest all-girls public school campaign to keep its legacy alive.

Just inside the brick-and-stone school building on Falls Road, a dozen 5-by-3-foot black, red, and white canvas portraits, painted in the style of former president Barack Obama’s famous “Hope” campaign poster, hang from the walls of Western High School’s lobby. They form a hall of fame of sorts, reflecting the eclectic backgrounds of some of the most recognizable alumnae of the first and oldest all-girls public school in the country.

The likenesses smile back at you. There’s award-winning actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith and Robin Quivers, Howard Stern’s longtime radio sidekick; along another wall, former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Baltimore Ceasefire founder Erricka Bridgeford, and Maryland state Senator Jill Carter, who is in awe of her inclusion.

“It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” says Carter, who is among those running for late Rep. Elijah Cummings’ U.S. Congressional seat. In a nod to Western’s diverse history, Carter is on a wall alongside the images of American Jewish leader Henrietta Szold and Claribel Cone, one half of the sister duo responsible for the renowned Matisse collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

A reasonable person might assume that the portraits of these notable alums were always supposed to be placed inside the school’s main entrance—so the roughly 1,140 current Western students and 100 staff members could be inspired by this Baltimore school’s legacy. But initially, the portraits were intended to hang outside. As it happened, last fall, ahead of Western’s high-profile, on-campus 175th anniversary celebration, the school was forced to put up plywood boards to cover a dozen windows—scheduled for repair—along the school’s visible three-floor façade.

“Boarded up,” says Carolyn O’Keefe, Western Class of 1974, the outgoing and passionate leader of the recently launched Western High School Foundation, which is rallying to raise money to keep the school’s proud history and record of accomplishment alive. “Do you know what that means in Baltimore City? It means it’s shut down.”

In an effort to spruce things up, she connected with Hampden artist Jess Pfohl and commissioned the images. But in the weeks before they were completed, workers from the city arrived and finally started installing vents for a new air conditioning system in the spots where wood covered the windows.

“So we ended up putting the paintings inside. It’s more permanent that way, anyway,” O’Keefe says. “We made lemonade out of lemons. That’s sort of always been the Western way.” Now, however, there is a plan in place to make more than lemonade.

“This school has such a rich story. That’s why this effort is important.”

Western High School first opened Nov. 1, 1844, four years before the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in a tiny one-classroom building on North Paca Street. Over the next half century, as the city’s population grew, the college preparatory school moved to five different locations before landing at its current home, which opened in 1967 as part of a state-of-the-art, joint complex shared with the then-all-boys Polytechnic Institute. (Poly, which remains a next-door neighbor, went coed in 1974.)

Then as now, the schools share an auditorium, courtyard, cafeteria facilities, and sports fields while functioning separately when it comes to academics and classrooms. Both attract kids from across district boundaries. Both require admission and remain among the best places for city kids to go to high school. Both, of course, rely on school system funding, which Western could always use more of to help cultivate the next generation of “Accomplished Alumnae,” as the school’s famous graduates near the front doors are identified.

Public records show Western’s budget for 2019 at nearly $7.4 million, or $6,500 per student, about the same annual per-student figures as Poly and fellow elite public schools City College and Baltimore School for the Arts. For years, however, those three schools have also received private funding from separate foundations and stakeholders supporting their missions. City College, for example, raised $2 million for a new library at the school several years ago. In addition to their public school system funding, the Baltimore School for the Arts raises one-third of its total budget through their fundraising partner, the BSA Foundation.

Western, until this year, hasn’t had a similar fundraising arm—despite a spirit of sisterhood and appreciation for empowering generations of young women of different backgrounds. In the 1960s and 1970s, in particular, according to alumnae, when Western was nearly half black and half white, the school possessed a unique sense of identity. “I was a bit outraged,” says O’Keefe, referring to when she learned that City College, Poly, and Baltimore School for the Arts had organized, functioning private fundraising efforts behind them and Western did not. The first alumnae fundraising meetings, held in the school’s library, were two-steps forward, one-step back—20 people one night, 10 another. But gradually, through word-of-mouth, a 16-person campaign committee was formed. Finally, a formal announcement on the new Western High School Foundation and its efforts was shared at the start of the yearlong 175th anniversary celebrations in November.

“The school has such a rich history,” says Belinda Conaway, a former Baltimore city councilwoman and current registrar of wills, and another face immortalized in the paintings. “That’s one of the reasons why this effort is so important, so we can make sure we can fill in where the school system doesn’t.”

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Education named Western a “Blue Ribbon” winner, and it has been acclaimed for its accelerated college prep program, where students can finish four years of high school work in three and then spend 12th grade taking advanced placement and/or college-level courses. At the same time, its reputation—not to mention finances—suffered a blow when an ex-principal admitted in 2015 to stealing more than $50,000 from the general student fund to pay her own personal bills.

Over the decades, despite its solid achievements in the classroom, there hasn’t always been a great deal of communication from the various administrations running the school to alums. That finally changed five years ago, when Michelle White, a 1993 Western graduate, took over as principal. She immediately went to work to reconnect with alumnae, posting on social media and organizing phone calls with fellow graduates “to think about how they could share their time, talent, and treasure with Western,” White says.

From there, a new booster club was born, which has helped with smaller needs such as books, equipment, trips, school furniture, and connecting students with internships. But White says she and others also recognized a need to raise money for larger, longer-term projects, like renovating the school library and providing consistent college test preparation (so the school can keep up its 98 percent advance-to-college rate). White foresees other improvements to their now 53-year-old main building, including simple things like landscaping and signage, and maybe even a dove (the school mascot) statue outside the building, which many drive past without even knowing it’s home to one of the most storied public schools anywhere.

By day, O’Keefe serves as the director of development for Roca, an organization helping at-risk young men in the city, and before that she worked in PR roles in the high-end jewelry industry, making her a natural fit to lead Western’s public fundraising campaign. She’d been itching to get involved with the school since moving back to Baltimore after years spent in Boston and New York. The notable 175th anniversary of Western’s founding represented a timely opportunity to put out a call to her fellow graduates—as well as others who support all-female education.

O’Keefe and the Western High School Foundation’s goal is to raise something close to $200,000 by November 2020, when the school’s milestone year is over. In other words, if 1,000 people donate a symbolic $175, they feel they’ll be well on their way to providing the support that will enable future students make it to any college or career they want.

“There was the sense of freedom . . . to express your independence.”

“We have a great legacy. We’re warm, safe, and have great spirit here,” O’Keefe says. “But we also have ambitions to bump it up in terms of the girls’ academic success and future. We’re going to do big things.”

Not surprisingly, perhaps, there’s been a little pushback about more pressing needs at other schools, which, for example, have dealt with chronic heating and air conditioning problems in recent years. That said, like other city schools, Western hasn’t had a major renovation since it opened.

“I get that,” O’Keefe says. “We have to be better about targeting people that care about Western. We don’t want to be a burden on [the average taxpayer or other public school parents]. We get that we attract some of the better students in the city, and we appreciate what you all are doing and your challenges. So we have to do this a bit on our own.”

Dr. Julie Seely, a medical director in northern Virginia who graduated from Western with O’Keefe in 1974, was the first person to donate to the campaign.

“We’re out to prove that just because you live in Baltimore City doesn’t mean you can’t be on your way to success,” says Seely, also the author of the historical memoir The Skinny House, about her African-American grandfather. “That’s ridiculous.”

Later, flipping through a collection of Westward Ho! yearbooks, O’Keefe begins to point out more familiar faces.

There’s future bestselling author Laura Lippman in 1970s alongside O’Keefe in a Hi-cology (a mash-up of high school and ecology) club picture. And Nancy Streeks (later Grasmick), the blonde-haired class treasurer who would become the Maryland State superintendent of schools. There’s also Robin Quivers, with close-cropped black hair, wearing a pearl necklace. Her bio doesn’t explicitly indicate she’ll one day work alongside America’s most successful shock jock in New York, but it does list a few related activities—Glee Club, Tutor, Campus Crier Representative, Ticket Committee, and Decorating Committee.

The school’s historic diversity is apparent on the throwback pages, too. “Back then, we were roughly 45 percent white, 55 percent black, something like that. It was really great,” O’Keefe says, turning through other yearbooks, which in more recent editions show a student population that’s 96 percent black. “We really got to know each other in a very fun way.”

Everyone has their own memories, but they share common themes. Seely, whose father was a Morgan State professor, recalls taking two buses to school from northeast Baltimore, and that it was well worth it to prepare her for college at Wellesley. “I was introduced to so many concepts, friends, subjects, and really a sense of competition among women. It was a wonderful academic sorority,” she says. “It changed my life. My father was academic at heart. He knew it wasn’t how big your house is, it’s really the education you get.”

Jill Carter, who went on to Loyola University and became a journalist, a lawyer, and then a legislator, sounded a similar tune. “Everybody knew Western girls had class,” she says. “And there was the sense of freedom there. Your ability to express your independence, that may be common now, but I don’t think it was necessarily the case back then. There was no other place to go but Western.”

White recalls a similar feeling of validation while a student at Western. “I want them to access the college of their choice,” she says. “I want them to feel empowered to cultivate their gifts, their talents, to explore new interests, to know that they have the room and support to do whatever it is they want to do.”

Already this year, O’Keefe and the fundraising group have arranged for writing coaches from Harbor East-based Laureate Education to help Western’s juniors write their college application essays. And representatives from Baltimore-based architectural firm Ayers Saint Gross have been on site to dream up plans for new outdoor features.

On a recent afternoon at Western, as an end-of-period bell rings and students file into a busy hallway, O’Keefe pokes her head inside the open doorway of Ms. Clay’s English classroom. A few students linger, so O’Keefe—someone used to asking for money and definitely not afraid of putting herself out there—asks the girls if they know “Dear Western,” the school’s alma mater.

“I don’t know it all, but I know the chorus,” one student replies.

Then the high schooler, along with her teacher Ms. Clay and O’Keefe—it’s not clear who started—begin to sing.

To you, Western High School,
We pledge our faith and loyalty,
To serve your name in love and honor
And to follow your standards faithfully,
For e’er we’ll remember your motto so true;
We’ve received light, let us give light –
A lesson well learned from you.

“This makes me proud,” O’Keefe says, soon bounding with energy and pointing out her old locker on the way back toward the school’s lobby, where those eclectic portraits portend a bright future for Western students already here and those to come.