Midsize No. 1: McDonogh School creates a family atmosphere

For The Baltimore Sun

Bridget Collins was inspired to become an educator when she was a young student at McDonogh School. She graduated in 1990, returned to the Owings Mills institution a decade later and has been there since.

“A litmus test of an institution is how long people stay. This is my 18th year, and I’m surrounded by teachers who taught me,” said Collins, a history teacher at McDonogh’s upper school and the institution’s director of character and service.

McDonogh is a highly regarded co-ed private school with nearly 1,400 students ranging from pre-K through 12th grade. Faculty members quickly become part of what is often referred to as the “McDonogh Family” — not merely a nickname for the staff, but an apt description of the workplace culture.

“This is a nurturing and loving environment, and we spread that to our students,” Collins said. “The moment I walked onto campus, teachers were sharing lesson plans and talking about their craft. We support each other in work and play, in good times and bad. We push each other to be better, to work harder, and to be the best teachers we can be.”

Teachers regularly speak of their autonomy in the classroom, where they are free to use their own ideas, lesson plans and projects. That contrasts with many public school systems, where they would be required to adhere closely to a standard curriculum. Gregg Kleiman, a middle-school science teacher, likes being able to incorporate modern technology into his lessons, transforming his classroom into a makerspace with 3-D printers and other equipment.

“They gave me the green light and were so supportive,” Kleiman said. “Now my classroom has turned from memorization and regurgitation and toward investigation and application of what a concept actually is. It is so nice to have that freedom. When I was teaching in public schools, they literally put a book in front of me and said, ‘Teach out of this and do not stray.’ ”

That support extends beyond the picturesque 820-acre campus. Full-time faculty who are working for master’s degrees or advanced professional certificates take comfort in knowing that 75 percent of their tuition and registration fees will be covered. They are also sent to conferences to further expand their professional development.

“We know the people who work here want to keep studying and reinventing themselves,” said Brad Shelley, the associate headmaster. “They are encouraged to take chances.”

Full-time faculty and staff also receive tuition assistance for their children and a pension. And they don’t have to pay for their lunches.

The school is bolstered by a sizable budget and endowment. A recent fundraising effort, the McDonogh Forever Campaign, sought to raise $75 million over the course of five years. Support from alumni and parents of former students propelled the campaign to beat that target in a shorter amount of time, bringing in more than $80 million in four years. The money will go toward construction, day-to-day-operations, financial aid, salaries and professional development, and academic and extracurricular programs. McDonogh distributed $5.2 million in need-based financial aid during the previous academic year, awarding an average of $18,800. (Tuition ranges from $16,220 to $29,830, depending on the grade).

“I was a scholarship student in the 1980s. For an independent school to have such a commitment to socioeconomic and cultural diversity is fantastic,” Collins said. “I teach history and comparative world religion. To be able to sit in a classroom where you have students of different backgrounds and discuss these subjects is incredibly rewarding.”

McDonogh students and staff also support the local community, donating gifts and money for meals to more than 100 families in Baltimore, making sandwiches for the homeless, raising funds for water tanks for schools in Uganda, and collecting more than 750 pajama sets for a local foundation that supports critically ill children.

All of this is why Collins and so many of her colleagues remain. It is why Kleiman is content to drive an hour to and from work every day. He left Baltimore County’s public school system after two years, during which he said he spent far more time managing a classroom than teaching. He’s entering his 18th year at McDonogh.

“I’ve been blessed,” he said. ““Those two years in the county felt like 10. The last 18 years have felt like two.”

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