The history of Baltimore City College began in 1839, when the city council of Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., passed a resolution mandating the creation of a male high school with a focus on English and classical literature. Baltimore City College was opened in the same year with 46 pupils under the direction of Nathan C. Brooks, a local educator and poet. In 1850, the council granted the school the authority to present its graduates with certificates of completion. An effort to expand that power and allow City College to confer Bachelor of Arts degrees began in 1865, but ended unsuccessfully in 1869.
By the early 1900s, as the importance of higher education increased, the school's priorities shifted to preparing students for college. In 1927, the academic program was further changed, when City College divided its curriculum into two tracks: the standard college preparatory "B" course, and a more rigorous "A" course of study.
In the 1950s, the school underwent demographic changes following the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case. In September 1954, African-Americans entered City College for the first time and continued to increase as a proportion of the student population in the 1960s. The school saw further changes in the student population with the acceptance of women in 1978.
Academic standards as well as enrollment at City College went through a period of decline in the 1980s and the early 1990s. The "A" and "B" courses were discontinued and a single academic track was offered. Then, in the mid-1990s, the school began to experience a turn around due to an increase in funding from the school system. Academic standards were re-strengthened and, in 1998, the school began offering the IB Diploma Program. By the beginning of the 2000s, City College was experiencing an academic resurgence. During this period the school was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a National Blue Ribbon School, and was listed as one of the top high schools in the U.S. by Newsweek.
 Early years
The creation of a male high school "in which the higher branches of English and classical literature only should be taught" was authorized unanimously by the city council of Baltimore on March 7, 1839; accordingly, a building on what was then Courtland Street (now Preston Gardens at St. Paul Place) was acquired to serve as the new high school. The school opened its doors on October 20, 1839 with 46 students. Enrollment was restricted to white, male students of Baltimore who had completed grammar school and passed an entrance exam. Those enrolled were offered two academic tracks, a classical literature track and an English literature track. The sole instructor for both tracks was the educator and poet, Nathan C. Brooks, who also served as principal. To accommodate the two tracks Brooks split the school day into two sections: one in the morning from 9–12 and another in the afternoon from 2–5. During the morning session, students studied either classics or English, however the afternoon was devoted to English.
In its first three years, the school was housed in many locations before returning to the original building on Courtland Street. In 1843, the city council allocated $23,000 to acquire a building for the school at the northwestern corner of Fayette and Holliday Streets. The building was the former Assembly Rooms, built in 1797 by architects Robert Cary Long and Nicholas Rogers to accommodate social events for Baltimore's elite, and the site of the first private library company of Baltimore. The school was next door to the Holliday Street Theatre, where the Star Spangled Banner was first performed in 1814, following the British attack on Baltimore. Although it was not designed to house an academic institution, the school would occupy this building for 30 years.
The school went through the first of a series of name changes in 1844. Known as the "High School", it was renamed the "Male High School" because of the establishment of two schools for females—Eastern and Western High Schools.
In 1849, after a decade of service, Brooks resigned as principal of the school, which had grown to include 232 students and 7 teachers, excluding Brooks. Rev. Dr. Francis G. Waters, who had been the president of Washington College, succeeded Brooks. The following year the city council renamed the school "The Central High School" and granted the commissioners of the public schools the right to confer certificates to the school's graduates. Exercising that new authority, the school held its first commencement ceremony in 1851 with philosopher, author and civic leader Severn Teackle Wallis as the guest speaker. This bolstered enrollment in the school, as students were drawn by the prospect of receiving a certificate attesting to their level of education. That year, 156 students applied to the school—an increase of 50 students.
The growing enrollment necessitated a reorganization of the school. Under the direction of Waters, the school day was divided into eight periods lasting forty-five minutes: four sessions were held in the morning and four in the afternoon. In addition to reorganizing the schedule, he divided the courses into seven different departments: Belles-letters and history, mathematics, natural sciences, moral, mental, and political science, ancient languages, modern languages, and music. Each of the seven instructors was assigned to a distinct department and received the title of "professor".
 Baltimore City College
|March 7, 1839:||The High School|
|1844:||Male High School|
|1850:||The Central High School|
|October 9, 1866:||The Baltimore City College (BCC)|
In 1865, in accordance with a recommendation from the board of commissioners of the Baltimore City public schools, City College began offering a five-year track, beginning a process aimed at elevating the school to a college and allowing it to grant its graduates degrees. To further these aims, the school was renamed "The Baltimore City College" (BCC) by an act of the city council on October 9, 1866. That same year, the board of commissioners recommended that the city council make a formal proposal to the Maryland General Assembly to grant City College the authority to confer Bachelor of Arts degrees to its graduates. According to the 38th Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of the Public Schools to the Mayor and City Council, the elevation of the school was designed to "afford advantages to students...who may adopt the profession of teacher as a pursuit of life." Thus, the elevation was intended to provide qualified teachers for the Baltimore school system. However, the city council never acted on this recommendation and though the school changed nominally, it was never truly granted the power of a college. Not only did the city council fail to make the recommendation to the general assembly, but it also failed to adequately maintain the facilities of the school. In the 43rd Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners of the Public Schools to the Mayor and City Council, the president of the board wrote:
|“||The subject of chronic lamentation,—the Baltimore City College Building,—which for the past fifteen years has afforded annually such abundant matter for melancholy regrets, not withstanding all the fervent promises and eloquent professions of interest that have been made from time to time extended, still remains as a crumbling monument of our withered hopes and blasted expectations.||”|
In addition, the president of the board again requested that the city council attempt to elevate the status of City College, "so that it shall be placed on equal footing in all respects to that of a first class collegiate institution," but no action was taken. Since there was no incentive to pursue the five-year track, no student remained at the school for the extra year of study and the course was abandoned in 1869.
It was not until 1873, when a fire spread from the Holliday Street Theatre to the "Assembly Rooms," that the city council finally decided to expend the resources to erect a new building for the school. The city council acquired a lot on Howard Street opposite Centre Street and allocated $150,000 for the construction of the new building. During the construction, City College was housed in a building of the Baltimore Female College, where it remained until its new English Gothic revival-style building was dedicated on February 1, 1875. While at the Baltimore Female College, the five-year course was reintroduced and the four-year track was eliminated. That allowed students to pursue advanced courses, which included calculus, political economy, logic and higher-level language courses, which were emphasized in the curriculum. Students were expected to learn Latin, French, German and Greek was offered as an optional course.
In 1876, ceremonies were held in the adjacent Academy of Music for the new Johns Hopkins University, which had established several buildings alongside City College under its first president, Daniel Coit Gilman. Four graduates of City College entered Hopkins as a part of the first undergraduate class. That same year the academic program underwent further changes with the introduction of a one-year track, which provided an opportunity for students, who could not complete the entire course of study because they needed to enter the labor market. Courses in the one year track focused on providing students with pragmatic skills, such as "book-keeping", "commercial arithmetic", and "business correspondence".
City College's first extracurricular activity, the Bancroft Literary Association, was established the same year to provide a forum for student debate. A second debating society, the Carrollton Society, was established in 1878. One of the first athletic teams appeared the following year, when a group of students organized a lacrosse team—the first at a public high school. The establishment of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute (Poly) in 1883 was an important development for City College's athletics program. With the founding of Poly, City College acquired an arch rival in academics and sports—particularly football. The schools have met annually in a football clash since 1889. However, the formal organization of an athletic program did not begin until 1895. During the early years of the athletic program, City College played mainly against college teams because few other secondary schools existed in Maryland. City College's 1895 football schedule included St. John's College, Swarthmore College, the United States Naval Academy, University of Maryland, and Washington College.
City College's Tudor Gothic building lasted until 1892, when it was undermined by the construction of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad tunnel from Camden Station to Mount Royal Station, and collapsed. Several years of political in-fighting and the change to a reformist city administration delayed construction of a new structure. Designed by the architects Baldwin and Pennington, the new structure was not completed until 1899.
The succeeding year, the first and only time since 1851, the school did not hold a commencement. Members of the senior class had decided to make fun of the professors in the Green Bag—City College's year book since 1896. When the school board was alerted of the matter, it attempted to censor the edition, passing a resolution requiring the Green Bag to be reviewed by Principal Francis A. Soper. However, the year book had already been printed, and the editors refused to have the edition censored and reprinted. The school board responded by withholding the diplomas of six of the editors of the Green Bag and the business manager, and by preventing the school from holding a commencement ceremony. One of the boys expelled, Clarence Keating Bowie, became a member of the school board in 1926.
In 1901, the course of study at City College went through a series of further changes. The most significant was the reduction of the five-year course of study to four years; though students who entered prior to 1900 were allowed to complete the five-year course. The new course, like the course it replaced, allowed graduates to be admitted to Johns Hopkins University without examination, and provided students with greater flexibility. Instead of requiring students to complete the same set of courses, it allowed students to choose their courses, as long as they completed 150 credits.
The program's explicit purpose was to provide special preparation for those wishing to attend college because of the increasing significance of college education. Though specific classes were not required, to meet the goal, students were required to complete courses in English literature and composition, four foreign languages, mathematics, science, history, commerce, drawing, music, and physical culture.
 "Castle on the Hill"
By World War I, attendance in the school was rapidly increasing. An annex was added on 26th Street to alleviate overcrowding in the Howard Street building, but it was insufficient. Therefore, during the 1920s, alumni began campaigning to provide a proper building for the school, and in 1926, ground was broken for a massive Collegiate Gothic stone castle with a 38-acre (153,781 m²) campus, on a hill in the newly-annexed northeastern suburbs at 33rd Street and The Alameda. The four-level "Castle on the Hill", which was surmounted by a 150 ft (46 m) tower and designed by architects Buckler and Fenhagen, cost almost $3,000,000 and accommodated 2,500 students. The "castle" featured arched windows and cornices, cloisters, gargoyles, stained glass, mahogany paneling, plaster arches, chandeliers and terra cotta tiles and terrazzo floors with two courtyards and plans for additional wings and buildings.
The following year, in 1927, the "Advanced Academic Course" ("A" Course) was introduced. Students in the "A" Course were able to enter their second year of college following their graduation. This program of study and its counterpart, the college preparatory course ("B" Course), became the backbone of City College's academic program for over 60 years. On April 10, 1928, after nearly two years of construction, "The Castle on the Hill" opened its doors to the students and faculty. The next year, the students published the first edition of The Collegian, City College's newspaper. The publication quickly became an indispensable part of student life and gained national attention, when it won second place in a contest held by the Columbia Scholastic Press Association of Columbia University and held that title between 1935–1939.
When Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 led to U.S. entry into the Second World War, blood donor projects, stamp and bond drives, and the dedication of service flags gave the City College a wartime atmosphere. More than three quarters of the students participated in the Victory Corps, which sponsored courses in communications, map reading, judo, and a study of the poisonous and non-poisonous plants on Pacific islands. By the end of the war, 4,667 City College men served in the armed forces, 204 of whom lost their lives. The names of all of the fallen, including two Medal of Honor recipients, are inscribed on a bronze memorial, which sits today in the center of the school.
Following the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the Baltimore City board of school commissioners was forced to desegregate the school system, which had been racially divided since the 1860s. As a result, ten African-American students entered City College in September 1954, comprising 0.5% of the student population. A decade later, in the 1964/5 academic year, African-Americans students represented 30.2% of the student population.
The school system also sent two African-American men to teach at the school in 1956, Eugene Parker, who coached for thirty years, and Pierre Davis, who left after one year, but returned in 1971 as City College's first black principal.
Despite the increase in African-American enrollment, the transition from the segregated system was not seamless. In 1964, enrollment in the selective "A" Course still skewed disproportionately to white students. Only six African-Americans were enrolled that year compared with 110 whites, and were similarly underrepresented in extracurricular activities.
That de facto segregation was a system-wide problem in Baltimore throughout the 1960s. To address the problem, Superintendent Laurence G. Paquin proposed a reorganization of Baltimore's high schools. He called for the creation of 13 comprehensive high schools that would offer both vocational training and college preparatory classes, and the elimination of multiple academic tracks in high school. However, Paquin's proposal met stiff opposition from City College parents and alumni, who feared that his plan threatened the foundations of City College's academic program. Councilman William Donald Schaefer, an alumnus of City College, convened a City Council hearing on the proposal, which stymied Paquin's effort.
By the late 1970s, the school's population, academic program, and building were all in decline. In 1977, money was allocated to refurbish the school and bolster the college preparatory program. That same year the school system announced its intent to make City College coeducational; however, the all-male tradition did not end easily. Alumni argued the uniqueness of a single-sex education system, and a task force studying the issue voted 11–6 in favor of keeping the all-male tradition. In a stunning reversal, the board of school commissioners voted to admit women citing Constitutional concerns. The following year City College welcomed young women for the first time,
 Recent history
By 1990, the school's academic program was once again deteriorating and enrollment was declining. The Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools raised questions about the ability of City College to offer students an academically rigorous course of study. During this period of decline, the "A" Course was discontinued by Principal Joseph Antenson, who contended that the program was racially discriminatory—an argument Paquin had made nearly three decades earlier—and opted for a standardized curriculum. However, the change did little to improve the school; therefore, in 1992, the school system hired a private contractor to run City College. That action was a part of the unsuccessful "Educational Alternatives program", which lasted for about 14 months. Then, in 1994, Joseph M. Wilson was appointed principal of City College. Wilson, with the aid of alumni and parents, was able to secure more funding and autonomy from the school system, which were used to redesign the curriculum and to introduce the IB Diploma Program in 1998.
The new academic program attracted increased attention in the school. In 2000, City College was recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education, which placed it among the best schools in the country. The following year, the Toronto National Post reported on the two month long task of searching for the perfect high school in Britain, the United States, and Canada. It “never found the perfect school . . . [however] we found a few outstanding ones,” the paper concluded. And one of these—the subject of a prominent feature article—was City College, led by Wilson. The school's rankings in Newsweek's report of the nation's top high schools improved during this period. In 2003, it was ranked 593. Three years later, in 2006, City College was ranked 206, and in 2007 it was ranked 258. With an estimated 27,500 public high schools across the nation, the 2007 ranking placed City College into the top one percent of all high schools. In its criteria, Newsweek divided the number of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests taken by the number of graduating seniors. The magazine states that the measure shows schools, which are committed to helping students take college-level courses.
In addition to the academic resurgence of the school, the building also saw an increase in interest. The Castle on the Hill was honored in 2003 by being placed on the National Register of Historic Places; this designation coincided with the 75th anniversary of the structure and campus as well as City College's 165th year of existence. On April 24, 2007 it earned the additional distinction of being a Baltimore City Landmark. Mayor Sheila Dixon stated that: “The castle on the hill, as City College is known, is truly an historic landmark. It is worthy of preservation and acknowledgment.”
The landmark status bill was passed by the city council in accordance with a recommendation made by the council's staff, which found that the building dates from an historic and architecturally significant period. This new status prevents the building’s exterior from being altered without the approval of the city's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation. However, the previous year City College was a victim of vandalism at the hands of a group of children ranging in age from 8 to 15, as a renovation of the school neared completion. In the summer of 2007, scenes from the 2008 sequel Step Up 2 were filmed at City College. Interior and campus shots were used to form the fictional Maryland School for the Arts.
Opposition to the academic program arose in 2007, when members of the Baltimore City College Alumni Association argued that the IB Program was diverting a significant amount of the school's resources, in order to benefit a fraction of the student population. Only approximately 30 students out of 1300 were enrolled in the full IB Diploma Program at City College. Some members also argued that the rigidity of the program did not give students enough flexibility. Citing these concerns, the alumni association encouraged the school to replace the IB Program with the "A course" and expand the number of Advanced Placement courses offered.
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† indicates principals who attended Baltimore City College