He's Got the Hook

By Dembicki, Matthew | Techniques, March 2000 | Go to article overview

He's Got the Hook


Dembicki, Matthew, Techniques


Robert Kemmery is as much a salesman as he is a high school principal. That attitude helped him transform a career and technical high school in the heart of metropolitan Baltimore's manufacturing district.

A few months after taking the helm of Baltimore County, Md.'s Eastern Technical High School, Principal Robert Kemmery called Buzz Bartlett, director of corporate affairs at Martin Marietta, the defense manufacturing giant.

Kemmery asked Bartlett, who served on the Maryland State Board of Education, to walk through his school with him, eager to get Bartlett's opinion of how things could improve. Bartlett was hesitant, but Kemmery persisted and kept stressing that he needed his help to better prepare students for college and work. Bartlett finally agreed to see every classroom and every lab. After the tour, Bartlett told Kemmery: "You're 1970s and it's the 1990s." Kemmery replied: "I know. That's why I need your help."

Bartlett arranged a 20-minute meeting for Kemmery with Joseph Antinucci, one of Martin Marietta's presidents. He also gave the energetic principal some advice on how to make his pitch using Harvard Graphics and a vision strategy. "My boss is into vision statements," Bartlett said. "We have a vision mission for Martin Marietta, and you need to have a vision or he'll turn you off in the first minute."

Kemmery told Antinucci his vision of preparing students for high-skill jobs, emphasizing that he needed to work with companies like Martin Marietta and community colleges and universities to achieve the goal. After 10 minutes, Antinucci smiled and said, "I like it. You got what you need."

The following week Eastern Tech started getting money--$5,000 the first year--from Martin Marietta and working with the company's local engineering contractors to create a new engineering program.

Kemmery has used the same pitch ever since. "That's the model," Kemmery says. "We did that in allied health, we did it in criminology, we did it in communications and multimedia. It's time-intensive but you get tremendous buy-in and credibility."

With more than two dozen major corporations helping his school in curriculum development and contributing about $250,000 a year in equipment and donations, Kemmery says he's found the key to successful business partnerships: vision. He's used the same strategy to bring aboard teachers, parents and students.

"I knew that if I was going to make some major changes to [help] students, I had to have a hook that would pull people in," Kemmery says. "The hook that pulled people in was vision."

Surveying the land

Once a manufacturing hub on the East Coast, Baltimore County has seen many of its companies either leave, close or slash their workforce over the past 15 years. Glenn L. Martin, which made planes during World War II, once had 52,000 workers. Now called Middle River Aircraft Systems, it employs 1,100 people. Bethlehem Steel has seen its local workforce shrink from 35,000 to 4,500. The Western Electric plant simply closed.

Kemmery grew up in a similar Rust Belt environment in Pittsburgh, where he worked at a steel company putting brakes on locomotives that carry ore to blast furnaces. "I watched a lot of my aunts and uncles get marginalized by a very changing marketplace," he says. The global economy was emerging and computers were becoming a major tool at work.

Preparing Eastern Tech students for that new economy has been Kemmery's mission since he arrived in 1991. But first he had to become acquainted with the workforce needs of local industries. Then he had to reach out and explain to students, parents and community groups that students would need to learn new skills to be competitive. To put it in terms they could appreciate, Kemmery occasionally drew on his experiences in Pittsburgh, explaining how steel mills use technology to produce more with fewer employees, meaning people are competing for fewer and more skilled jobs. …

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