Doug and Gretchen Moran, owners of a home-based software company in California, said they can live wherever they want.
And what they want are good schools for their children, Jack, 5, and Isabel, 8 — especially Jack, who they say is both a special-needs and a gifted student, reading far above his grade level but hampered by Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
Last week, the family toured the private Baltimore Lab School in the Old Goucher neighborhood in south Charles Village during an open house. The Morans were all ears as Head of School David Lightfoot asked them where people got food in the 1700s.
"We're not private school people fundamentally," said Gretchen Moran. "We support public schools."
But she too was all ears as Lightfoot and Greg Stewart, a board member and the parent of a Baltimore Lab graduate who is now in college, extolled the virtues of the school as an alternative for children in elementary through high school with learning disabilities.
These are halcyon days for Baltimore Lab School, 2220 St. Paul St., which until recently flew under the radar as a division of the much-older and better known Lab School of Washington. Since 2004, Baltimore Lab has been based in a building owned by the Washington school — Old Goucher Hall, once home to the now Towson-based Goucher College.
"It hasn't been an institution; it's been a division of a Washington institution," said John Magladery, president of the board of directors and the father of twin boys in the 11th grade.
Now, fulfilling a longstanding plan, Baltimore Lab is moving forward independently as a nontraditional urban school. The school has purchased the historic, 43,600-square-foot building for $1.47 million from the Lab School of Washington and has severed funding ties with the 46-year-old Washington school.
"It's completely two separate schools now," Lightfoot said.
"It's an exciting time," said Magladery.
A split from The Lab School of Washington was part of the original plan when the Baltimore school opened in 2000.
"The plan was, in 10 years Baltimore Lab should be strong enough to stand on its own two feet," Lightfoot said.
Officials now plan to raise the school's profile and grow enrollment, which has increased from 18 students in its first year to 100 in the first-through-12th grades now, with average class sizes of 4-1.
"I think, frankly, it was time," Magladery said. "The two cities are different. The marketplaces are different. And we're different from any Baltimore school."
Baltimore Lab is working on fostering more tutoring and educational partnerships, such as the ones with Johns Hopkins University, the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, aimed at giving students real-world experiences.
Lightfoot, 45, of Canton, a former art educator now in his third year as head of school, said he is reaching out to the surrounding communities and getting involved with the Old Goucher Community Association and other civic groups. He is also involved in the Greater Homewood Community Corp.'s block captain program as block captan for the 2200 block of St. Paul, where the school is located. He said the school also had a table at last year's Artscape festival.
"I'm really trying to ripple out," Lightfoot said.
Baltimore Lab's arts-based approach to education is immediately obvious, from its paint brush-and-palette sign outside the building to the elevator doors in the lobby, which the students in past years festooned with caricatures of famous people through history, from Egyptian pharaohs to business tycoons.
The lower school doesn't place its students in traditional grades, but in academic "levels."
Classes and learning tools range from the Cave and Renaissance clubs to a giant papier mache dragon, the school mascot, which used to guard the lobby, but now hangs in a stairwell.
During the tour, students in a technology class could be seen painting barrels and drawing video game motifs for a planned "Super Mario Bros." entry in this year's Kinetic Sculpture Races. Last year's theme was a Rube Goldberg contraption.
The school, well equipped with computers and electronic blackboards called smart boards, also stresses field trips and trips abroad as part of what Lightfoot called an "immersive, hands-on learning" strategy. Students have gone to Costa Rica, Spain and France. The school also stresses creative play, movement classes in which students act out songs, and projects such as putting out a newspaper called Lab 10.
Lightfoot said one unexpected partnership has emerged. A Gilman School student, whose sister goes to Baltimore Lab, started "Dragon Aid," to raise money for field trips and trips abroad, Lightfoot said. He added, "We have had generous parents covering the costs of some of those trips."
The school is a member of the Maryland Association of Nonpublic Special Education Facilities, which allows parents to apply for city, county and state aid. All of the teachers are certified special educators. The staff includes occupational therapists, speech pathologists and psychologists, and a room in the building serves as a therapeutic, playground-like gymnasium.
Tuition is about $35,000 per year, Lightfoot said. More than half of the students are publicly funded by the state and the public school districts from which they came, he said.
Students who are funded by their home districts must pass state-mandated exams, he said.
Ten Baltimore Lab students are expected to graduate this year, and the graduation speaker will be Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Fifteen students a year are expected to graduate over the next three years, Lightfoot said.
About 85-90 percent of Baltimore Lab students go on to college, Lightfoot said.
"My kids are looking at Drexel and Penn State [universities]," Magladery said. One of his sons excels in math and science and is "good with his hands," doing everything from rewiring lamps to building a 3-D printer, Magladery said.
But he said his son wouldn't fare well in a traditional school setting.
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"If you handed him a textbook or he's in a lecture of 150 kids, it isn't going to happen."
Stewart told prospective parents during the open house that his daughter, Breanna, a 2012 Baltimore Lab graduate, is doing well as a sophomore at Shenandoah University in Virginia and has changed her major from acting to interdisciplinary studies, because she wants to combine women's studies and theater to address human rights issues.
"I would say she has those interests because of the school," said Stewart, of Ellicott City, a former Xerox executive. He said his daughter came to Baltimore Lab as a second-grader with short-term memory loss and couldn't read until the eighth grade. Now, Breanna has a grade-point average above 3.0 at Shenandoah.
"There's light at the end of the tunnel, and it's not a train coming at you," Stewart told parents at the open house.
Thats was good enough for Gretchen Moran, who said after the open house and tour that her son Jack would be attending Baltimore Lab in the fall.