Jerome Marco has never regretted his choice to move out of a classroom and into the role of a school administrator. “You have influence over about 150 kids a year as a classroom teacher,” Marco said. “As principal, I have 2,000 kids.”
And now, after 29 years as the principal of Walt Whitman High School, Marco has decided it’s time to stop being an administrator, too. “I thought I could go on forever, but there comes a time,” Marco said. “Now it’s time to pay back my family.”
In that time, Marco said, the school has grown to have a national reputation for its academics, and has grown from having only one Advanced Placement class to 24. “That seemed to be what the community wanted,” he said.
When Marco arrived, Darryl Shaw had just finished his tenure as Whitman’s first principal. Marco had spent the last five years as principal of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School and in the spring of 1975 took over at Whitman, serving as principal of both schools for a time.
That spring he had vacancies to fill at both schools and spent his time keeping order and hiring teachers for two schools.
Once he started at Whitman, he tried to ease into his new role. “I just took almost a year just walking and talking and listening,” he said.
Part of that listening involved holding a series of community meetings to try to understand what the parents wanted. “Initially, the community thought the school was arrogant and took care of the brightest,” Marco said.
To counter that, he invited parents to help as volunteers. “I think having parents involved at the school helps the school,” Marco said.
“He worked amazingly well and increased relationships,” said Lafe Solomon, co-president of the Whitman PTA. “I only wish he had another 28 years.”
Marco has enjoyed those relationships he has built, and said he appreciates the community. “The people here, if something’s done good, they’re just as quick to pick up the pen and write about it [as if it’s done badly],” he said.
During his tenure, Marco has built an arts program, and pioneered programs that are now countywide, such as post-prom parties and character education classes, both accomplishments he is proud of.
“He created the art and music program out of nothing,” Solomon said. “He creates the trends.”
Marco has had a lasting effect on the students who have passed through the school. Patrick Byrne, who graduated from Whitman in 1981, has enjoyed a successful business career and is currently the president of Overstock.com.
Marco remembered Byrne as one of the top students he has seen in his nearly half-century of education. And Byrne remembers Marco, too.
“You look back over the course of your life, and you see three or four people who really affected it and who really had a profound impact,” Byrne said. “I’ve talked about Jerry Marco over the years as just a profound influence on me. … He’s just the kind of guy they make movies about.”
Byrne remembered Marco challenging him to see beyond the usual high school clique structure and to become friends with many different people, and to take on more of a leadership role. “In my life, it’s an idea that stayed with me, not to judge people by their group.”
This is just the sort of philosophy which has guided Marco’s dealings with his students. “I’ve always had the feeling that kids will do more if that’s what they’re expected to do,” he said and then recited the mantra he has used with his faculty. “Push ‘em, Push ‘em, Push ‘em a little bit harder. I think that sort of permeates within the school.”
”Some organizations are nothing but the shadow of one man,” Byrne said.
Marco tried to emulate this motto as the school’s principal, as well. “I try to model a good work ethic and try to be fair to people,” he said.
Marco thinks he was able to live up to that standard, and is now thinking about returning to the school system as a consultant.
“We will miss him. We wish him well,” Solomon said. “If Ronald Reagan doesn’t get on the $10 bill, maybe we’ll get Jerry Marco.”
One of Jerome Marco’s most controversial legacies at Whitman will be the zero-tolerance policy which he championed.
Critics of such policies say that it does not leave room for mitigating circumstances and that it can lead to a punishment that does not always fit the offense.
But Marco’s policy, he said, comes from too many spring days spent in graveyards.
“For nearly 20 years, I was burying students in the spring every year,” he said.
He decided that as a school, the only long-term piece that he had control over was a student’s transcript. “I thought how can I get a hold of that transcript and use that as leverage?” he said.
He knew that grades were something he could not touch, but there is more to a transcript than grades. “I said, ‘I’m going after the activities,’” he said.
So, if any Whitman student shows up at any school-sponsored activity after drinking or using illegal drugs, they are banned from all extracurricular activities for one year. For seniors the sanction includes being barred from the prom and walking in their graduation. “As a college admissions officer, you might raise an eyebrow,” he said.
Frequently, when students are caught in such situations, he found that whatever incident that prompted the ban was part of a larger pattern. “When we go to the hearing, we find they’ve been doing this for four or five years and this is the first time they’ve been caught,” he said.
Since the program has been in place, Marco has not been called on to attend student funerals like he used to.
“As a result, a lot of kids have said, ‘It’s not worth it,’” he said. And in this, his last year, Marco proudly noted that there was not one student who was on the receiving end of the policy.
Jerome Marco has a piece of advice for his successor.
Marco, while realizing that a new person may want to take the school in a new direction, advises against doing so too quickly.
“There’s nothing that you need to rush into,” he said.
Marco said the new principal should take some time to get to know the school and the community. “I think that I would just play it cool to start with,” he said.
The position is being advertised nationally, and no decision has yet been made, but the PTA would like to see things remain relatively the same. “I think that continuity is a big issue,” said Lafe Solomon, co-president of Whitman’s PTA. “I don’t think we need someone to take us in a different direction.”
However, Solomon said that some change may not be entirely bad. He noted that a new leader will see the problems with a fresh perspective, and that might solve problems in new ways and with new ideas. “I don’t think that anybody’s afraid of that,” he said.
OH, HOW THEY'VE CHANGED!
On a fundamental level, Marco said, students have not changed much during his tenure. “I think kids know right from wrong,” he said.
However, he does notice a shift in attitudes and behaviors. While in the past students might stop if they thought they shouldn’t do something, today’s students take time to analyze the issue.
He said he find students asking themselves, “What are the consequences if I do what I do?” Some students are willing to pay the price for a particular transgression, so they will do something they know is wrong.
Some of it, he said, may be attributed to a spillover from general societal attitude, which he said favors giving too many allowances to people who have had difficulties in their lives, and not holding them to the same standard as others.
As a result, he finds that now students will blame bad behavior on external factors, instead of owning the decisions they have made.
There are still some students who will take responsibility “It’s refreshing when a student steps up and says, ‘I did it. I’m ready to take the punishment.’”