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With students and employees, McDonogh School fosters a community spirit

Bridget Collins waited a long time to go back to McDonogh School. A 1990 graduate, she hoped to teach there after she graduated from Bucknell University, but there were no openings. She got a master's degree in teaching, but McDonogh still wasn't hiring. Finally, Collins returned in 2000 to her alma mater, where she's now an upper school history teacher and soccer and softball coach.

"McDonogh made me want to be a teacher," Collins said. "The experience I had as a student here made me want to teach."

A coeducational private school for kindergarten through grade 12, McDonogh — which snagged the No. 1 spot in the mid-size category for Baltimore's Top Workplaces — is located on nearly 800 lush acres near Owings Mills. It was founded in 1873 as a farm school for poor boys. Its founder, John McDonogh, focused on character, and the school's modern-day mission statement follows suit: "Embracing diversity of background, culture, and thought, the school builds upon its founder's original mission to provide life-altering opportunities and to develop in students the will 'to do the greatest amount of good.'"

McDonogh is a special place for many: When kindergarten teacher Sharon Hood started dating her husband in college, he took her to visit McDonogh. "I fell in love with the campus and the school," she said. "I said, 'One day, I'd really like to work out here.'" Hood has taught at McDonogh for 15 years, and all three of her sons are students there.

Of its approximately 1,300 students, about 100 upper school students live on campus on the weekdays, and 20 percent of the faculty live on campus year-round.

Collins fondly remembered her senior year living on campus: "You got to go over to your teachers' homes on Thursday nights and share a snack and play games, and it was such a family atmosphere that even when I went off to college and I hurt my knee playing soccer, I got a letter in the mail from my old English teacher."

Day students are bussed to the school from Anne Arundel, Howard, Carroll, and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City. And students receive more than $3.5 million in financial aid, a practice that hearkens back to the school's beginnings, when many boys were on scholarship.

"My predecessors always did a wonderful job of honoring teachers and staff, and the trustees of the school always focused on great teaching and supporting great teachers," said Headmaster Charles Britton. "And then of course you add in wonderful kids. It's a formula for joy."

Like headmasters before him, Britton said he avoids creating a "top-down atmosphere. [McDonogh] is a school where ideas bubble up and where the faculty and the students often come up with the greatest ideas."

He pointed to an instance in which a consultant was hired to redesign the serving area of the upper school cafeteria as part of the campus master plan, which has been under way since 2011 and will result in the construction of three new buildings. The McDonogh community wasn't crazy about the consultant's plans, so the students gave it a shot. "The architecture club took a stab at it over pizza and soda, and they designed a servery that will be implemented," Britton said.

Employees reported on the Top Workplaces survey that the master plan process — an experience that can often be messy and divisive — has been a great success.

"What we agreed upon was that we wanted to have multiple stakeholders, that it wasn't just going to be a plan devised in my office," Britton said. "I think almost every constituency in the school had a stake in what we were doing."

Collins said the administration is supportive of faculty but also allows them autonomy and encourages them to pursue professional development. With financial support from the school, six years ago she traveled to Ireland to develop her World History course. "The sky's the limit for what we come up with," she said.

And her colleagues, Collins added, are genuinely invested in their students — and each other. In 2001, when her father fell ill, Collins' colleagues covered her classes for three straight weeks. When her father died, the funeral was packed with McDonogh faculty, staff, and students. "They didn't know my father," she said, "but that's the nature of this community."

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