Last month more than 104,000 students returned to Baltimore County Public Schools.
While those students came back to the 26th largest school system in the nation, a new school tucked away in Lutherville welcomed just nine students.
The Auburn School, on the ground floor of the Towson Unitarian Universalist Church, enrolls children between first and seventh grades who are "strong students" but need help with social skills, communication, language and organization.
Head of School Marjorie Hoffman, who has spent 42 years in both private and public systems, believes the school is needed.
"There is such a need for this school," Hoffman said. "These are very bright kids who have language-based learning challenges. We serve children who don't interact well with their peers, who don't understand social expectations, and who don't know how to articulate their feelings.
"We're looking for bright, capable kids who have these social issues," she said. "We can offer them a highly-developed, challenging curriculum. Social thinking and language is infused into everything we do."
Founded by educator Eric Heyer, the first Auburn School opened in Herndon, Va., two years ago and now enrolls 40 students. A Silver Spring campus debuted a year later and has 21 students.
With a rolling enrollment policy, Hoffman believes that her school will gradually gain students as the first year progresses.
"The goal is to have our students take their many abilities, talents and strengths and transfer those skills into their everyday lives and their communities," she said. "We encourage them to think at a higher level, and to use their sense of inquiry."
Strength in (small) numbers
The school day is about the same length as the public school day, beginning at 8:30 a.m. and ending around 3:30 p.m. The bulk of the classes are held in the morning, and run 50 minutes each. All students get recess, then return for one class in the afternoon.
Daily instruction in the core subjects of English, math, science and social studies is supplemented with classes in art, music, drama and even kung-fu.
Throughout the day, the staff works with each child on the development of social skills. Each day ends with a period of reflection and reorganization with the students.
"Our kids range in age from 6 to 12 years old," said Hoffman. "We have two first-graders and a third-grader in one group, and our third-grader moves out for specialized reading and math instruction.
"Across the hall from the younger kids are a total of six students in grades four to seven."
Hoffman said she, curriculum director Nichole Stewart, a staff behaviorist and the school's two teachers don't have to worry about large class sizes.
"With the small classes, we can stop the day and use a teachable moment," said Stewart, who came to The Auburn School after seven years at Trellis Services. "In most school systems, you don't have the opportunity or the time to stop and focus on social thinking and learning. We are able to imbed that into our formal instruction. We can dwell on the social interaction, and ask how we can change it if it didn't go well."
"Because of their social challenges, (some students) might be 11 years old but socialize better with younger kids," Hoffman said. "We want the academic piece to be in keeping with their ability, but we need to provide the socialization piece to be there as well. So we mix it up when we need to."
From the ground up
Hoffman was hired to start the Lutherville location in early January, and has been running at a breakneck pace ever since. The founder of the Krieger-Schechter School, in Pikesville, and former middle school head at Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills, Hoffman said her first task was to introduce herself, and her new school, to the educational community.