New school in Lutherville low on numbers, high on social interaction

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.

"I talked to occupational therapists, speech therapists, pediatricians and intervention specialists," Hoffman said. "I visited every kind of school you could imagine to let them know what we had to offer."

Hoffman had to find a suitable facility for the new school, and was fortunate to move into church space that was previously occupied by a Montessori school. The space was renovated during the summer, and after an August orientation session for children and families, the school opened on Sept. 12.

She said the most important part of the buildup was hiring the right staff. The school advertised in numerous publications, and Hoffman traveled to colleges and universities to recruit part of her faculty.

"Our teachers have to be very committed and understand our mission," Hoffman said. "They need to be flexible, caring, and creative — and realize that this is a start-up. It's exhausting to start a school, but everyone is putting their heart and soul into it. They have a passion for these children."

The school has a monthly open house - with the next one scheduled for Sept. 27. On Nov. 5, Hoffman and her staff will host the first "Auburn School Lego Day," which is open for both children and parents.

The price of the school's small size isn't cheap — the base tuition is $32,500 (though there's a $3,000 "credit" for the inaugural year) — but Hoffman believes the size of the school and the chance to work individually with students will make The Auburn School attractive, for students and teachers, as well.

"It's a teacher's dream," she said. "It is a wonderful creative experience."

She said students are not bound to the concept of "teaching to the test." But there are a set of standards, known as the "Auburn Compass."

"It's simply guiding the individual child in the direction that they need to go," Hoffman said. "For each child, we set eight to 10 social and academic goals that are developed in conjunction with the curriculum director and the behaviorist, and with input from the teacher and student. The parents then read the plan, and that becomes the basis for that child's goals for the year."

Even as the school's enrollment increases, the student-to-teacher ratio will remain low, Hoffman said.

"We're never going to be a huge school, with hundreds and hundreds of children," she said. "It matters to us how the children feel when they come to school. We want them to be anxious to get out of the cars and come in."

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