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All-girls' boarding school in Sparks Glencoe celebrates its 150th anniversary

North County News

1867 was a year of promise. The Civil War was two years in the past. The United States grew as Nebraska became the 37th state and Russia sold its Alaskan territory to the Americans for $7.2 million.

It was also the year that John and Anna McCulloch moved their family from New York to a farm named Oldfields on Glencoe Road in northern Baltimore County. Anna McCulloch began teaching her children, some nieces and nephews and a few neighborhood children in the farmhouse. She offered the promise that each child would receive intellectual and moral stimulation.

McCulloch's pledge has persisted and strengthened over the years as Oldfields School, now Maryland's oldest girls' boarding school, prepares to celebrate its 150th anniversary. The school's 180 students in grades 8 through 12 come from 28 states and 15 countries.

Oldfields, located at 1500 Glencoe Road in Sparks Glencoe, was a boarding school only until 1976, when its enrollment dropped to 90 students, and it began taking in day students, up to 20 percent of the total enrollment. The day students can eat three meals a day at the school, stay for evening tutoring sessions or return to join their classmates on weekend activities.

On Sept. 14, the girls, teachers and administrators — accompanied by Ridley, the athletic director's golden retriever — celebrated Founder's Day. They chatted about algebra and art, soccer and field hockey as they strolled from the 180-acre campus, across Glencoe Road, to Immanuel Episcopal Church's cemetery, where they placed a large floral wreath in front of Anna McCulloch's headstone.

"I think Anna McCulloch would be honored to see how successful the school she started is," said Francisca Cuppen, a 10th-grader from Virginia. Her classmate, Fatima Fahnbulleh, from Kenya, added, "This was her vision and it's still going strong 150 years later."

The 150th celebration will culminate in April during Alumnae Weekend, but an open house on Oct. 23, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., gives the public a chance to tour the campus. Visitors will see the original farmhouse, dormitories, dining hall, athletic center, barn and riding ring. The faculty will be in classrooms to give overviews of the academic curriculum.

"We want people to see what a wonderful school Oldfields is," said Dr. Parnell Hagerman, the head of school since 2013. "Our hallmark is, and always has been, that we bend over backwards to support and nurture our students. We want them to succeed. And they do. One hundred percent of our graduates last year went on to college."

The school has a 5:1 student-to-teacher ratio and offers 90 courses, including 19 honors classes. And with 75 percent of the faculty living on campus, students can ask questions anytime.

Its unique academic schedule calls for three 80-minute classes, with time in between for students to receive help. "That extra time gives girls a chance to decompress between classes," Hagerman said. It also allows them time to attend clubs and participate in any of a dozen sports teams.

Each May, students spend two weeks away from campus traveling and undertaking hands-on experiences. Last year, girls lived and worked out at the Olympic training center at Lake Placid, N.Y.; traveled to London, Germany and Normandy to study World War II history; and volunteered at an animal sanctuary in Utah, to name a few of the May opportunities.

Studying by oil lamplight

In 1867, when letters were the only form of long-distance communication, word soon spread about this new boarding school. Four girls from Tennessee joined the year after it opened. In 1881, Oldfields boasted its first international student — a young girl from Argentina.

By 1884, 20 girls lived at the farmhouse with the McCulloch family. They sat in front of a wood stove and studied everything from Shakespeare and physics to botany and Latin. Oil lamps provided light.

There was no running water and students took weekly baths in tin tubs. The farm provided much of the girls' food, although they complained about "garlicky" milk after the cows had feasted on onion grass in the pasture, according to a school history written by Mary King McPherson.

Tuition in those early years was $600 a year and included room, board, tuition and laundry. In addition to traditional classes, the girls took dance, calisthenics, vocal music and art. Today's boarding students pay $54,645, while day students pay $31,000. The school maintains an endowment, and financial aid, based on a family's need, helps support about 30 percent of the students.

At a time when young ladies were expected to spend much of their day inside, McCullouch insisted on exercise and long walks through the countryside. When the students were in the farmhouse, however, they promised they wouldn't be so rude as to "whisper, screech through the house, slam doors, scrape chairs over the floor or thunder up and down the stairs," McPherson's history notes.

Anna McCulloch led the school until her death at age 80 in 1904. She died while the girls were home on Easter break. Her daughter, known as Miss Nan, became head of school until Anna McCulloch's brother, the Rev. Duncan McCulloch, took over. In all, there have been 10 heads of school in 150 years. There are many notable alumnae, including Wallis Warfield (later to be Wallis Simpson), several Rockefellers and du Ponts, as well as the daughters of David Niven and Larry King.

The Oldfields' motto was adopted in 1908. The girls read Dante's description of his beloved — courage, humility and largeness of heart — and thought it encapsulated an ideal woman. The students voted unanimously to make it the school motto.

By 1920, Oldfields had electricity and began offering college preparatory courses. The school's riding program, which started in 1878 with two horses, gained stature when a stable was built in 1928. The next year, the school owned 14 horses, and eight students brought their own horses. Today, there are 30 horses, and 50 students are involved in the equestrian program.

The school continued during wars, depressions and recessions, but it seemed it was better known in other states than in the Glencoe neighborhood.

When Dorothy and Joe Hordubay were hired to teach in 1966, they went to the Sparks Bank to ask exactly where the school was. It took a while, but they were finally given directions.

The Hordubays — he taught chemistry and science and she was a reading specialist — arrived in time for the school's 100th celebration and were still teaching at Oldfields for the 125th. Now retired and living on Glencoe Road, they will return to Oldfields for its 150th.

"Oldfields is a very, very unique place. I'm still in contact with so many former students," Dorothy Hordubay said. "The heart of Oldfields is the feeling of family. It is unmatched anywhere else."

Zoe Angelos, of nearby Phoenix, who just started eighth grade, said she already feels at home.

"There is no better support system than here at Oldfields," she said. "You can join any of the groups here and they all welcome you. It really is family."

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