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Students of Timonium's Robert Paul Academy learn substance, color, and style

When visitors to the Robert Paul Academy of Cosmetology Arts & Sciences enter the expansive beauty school off Timonium Road, they see students styling hair of all colors — including teal, lavender and pink.

The heads of hair they are practicing on belong to disembodied mannequins, a sight that can cause people to do a double-take, said school owner and director Daria Ferrara.

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"The mannequins are both a source of curiosity and of fascination for clients, who often reference a finished mannequin when requesting a change," said Ferrara, daughter of academy founder Robert Paul Hamlin, who opened his first school in Aberdeen in 1969.

The academy is one of nine beauty schools in the Baltimore area and 37 in the state that are regulated by the Maryland Higher Education Commission.

Across the country 1,700 cosmetology schools with 120,000 students are registered with the National Accrediting Commission of Career Arts and Sciences, an independent firm based in Alexandria, Va., that is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

With estimates on how much Americans spend on their personal appearance reaching into the tens of billions of dollars annually, schools keep turning out cosmetologists, manicurists and estheticians.

"People spend money at salons because they feel it's necessary in order to stay relevant," Ferrara said. "Clients are willing to pay more to get what they want, and to get it done faster and done better."

Building a foundation

While the shags and Afros that were popular when Robert Paul Academy first moved to Timonium in 1978 have been replaced by many different fads over the years, current hair fashion involves a rainbow of anything-goes hair dyes, she said.

"Styles — and students — have all changed a lot since my dad first got into the business," Ferrara said, adding she took the reins of the accredited private career school 11 years before her father died in 2007.

"Trends for 2015 revolve more around color than specific styles," she said, with pastels, bold hues and matte silver-grays all popular right now.

Cierra Jurick, an academy student who graduated from Towson High School in May and currently sports whitish-pink hair, said she tends to change her color every other week.

"My family finds it hard to keep up with my different looks," she said with a laugh, adding her hair has been purple, red, blue, green and white. "But I love doing hair, and they're so glad I found something that allows me to express my creativity."

Fads may come and go, but Ferrara has seen one enduring change develop over the last several years: Students are coming into the school with more natural talent, thanks in part to the proliferation of smartphones.

"Students' fingers fly over a client's hair because they have such great dexterity from texting all the time," she said. "Their technical skills are amazing, and that changes our perspective on how to instruct them."

Ferrara began teaching in 1994, following in her father's footsteps.

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Hamlin was a Highlandtown native who played baseball during his years at Mount Saint Joseph High School in Baltimore. He stumbled on cosmetology when it was offered to him as a career option through the G. I. Bill after serving in the Army in France during World War II, Ferrara said.

In the late 1960s, after opening and selling a series of salons, Hamlin decided he'd like to share the knowledge he'd accumulated over the years by starting a school.

By 1986, Ferrara had earned an English degree from Washington College and was planning to pursue a graduate degree at Towson University when her dad convinced her to get her cosmetology license.

After realizing how much she enjoyed the industry and working with people, Ferrara, who is now 50, joined the family business. She is a resident of Jarrettsville and the married mother of three daughters in college.

Ferrara's brother, Bob Hamlin, serves as financial aid officer and admissions director, and her mother, Beverly Hamlin, co-founded the school.

The academy moved three years ago from York Road to its current spot in the former Smyth Jewelers building, located on Greenmeadow Drive.

The current building offers 12,500 square feet of working space, and has a capacity of 125 students. That number is determined by the Maryland Higher Education Commission, Ferrara said, which regulates the state's 150 private career schools, 30 of which are in the beauty and personal appearance fields.

Robert Paul Academy enrolls between 60 and 75 students annually, she said, adding there currently are six male students.

"Having boys enroll seems to come in waves," she said of the school's student population, which is served by a 12-to-1 teacher ratio.

Students' ages range from 18 to 40, but the majority are 22 or 23 and "went to college and discovered it wasn't for them," she said.

Students must complete 1,500 hours of training before taking the state-mandated exam to obtain a cosmetology license. Once students pass the exam they can be employed to work on hair, skin and nails.

Tuition for the academy's cosmetology program is set at $18,750. Training for 250 hours to become a manicurist is also offered by the school in a separate, lower-cost curriculum.

While the state's average program completion rate for 2010 through 2014 was 46 percent, the academy's average rate was 70 percent, according to the Maryland Higher Education Commission website.

Dean Kendall, associate director for career and workforce education at MHEC, said the academy has been around for a long time.

"One of the reasons we post completion and employment rates for private career schools like Robert Paul Academy is that it provides consumer choice," he said. "Prospective students can go to our website and make an informed decision."

What it takes to succeed

The academy also operates an on-site beauty clinic — with discounted prices and students at the helm — and boasts a list of loyal customers whose patronage dates back 35 years in some cases.

Sandy Jones, a 40-year Lutherville resident, has been getting a shampoo and haircut at the Robert Paul Academy for more than three decades.

"The students are all very nice and efficient, and I feel very relaxed there because the school has such a good reputation," said Jones, who is 71. She noted that many of her friends also patronize the clinic.

"I've had all types of students work on my hair, but once a student gets to the floor you know they're good. I haven't had my hair cut anywhere else in 30 years."

Ferrara said that on top of retaining clients, the academy has also watched its clientele expand thanks to the inundation of social media.

"Kids are into their appearance at a younger and younger age and they want highlights and extensions by age 8 for cheerleading or dance," Ferrara said. "At prom time, girls want an updo, false eyelashes and manicures."

These services are considerably more commonplace today because the way people think about their income has changed, she said.

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"The economy has not been great for eight years, but that has served as a linchpin for starting a revolution and salons have had to step up" to remain competitive, she said.

While demand for salon services continues to surge, teaching technical skills is only part of the picture for cosmetology instructors, Ferrara said.

Employers are looking to hire someone who also has interpersonal skills, good time management habits and a great personality, she said. She meets with area salon owners every six months or so to help match graduates to prospective employers.

"Anybody can be average, but being excellent makes the difference between living from paycheck to paycheck," she said. "Work ethic has to be taught."

Debbi Basile, owner of Sass Salon on York Road, has hired a half-dozen of the academy's graduates since she opened her shop four years ago.

"Not only has everyone I've hired gone to school there, I went there," Basile said of graduating in 1998. "I was 34 years old and on a mission. Robert was still alive and teaching, and he was great.

"The academy's students learn realistic styling techniques and are taught advanced coloring and cutting skills," she said. "They definitely have what it takes to work in a salon."

Ferrara said salons take seriously their job to craft the image a client seeks, and her school's curriculum must teach students how to succeed in the real world.

"This is a feel-good industry," Ferrara said. "We're trying to help our students realize their potential so they can go out and sell the experience.

"We put into someone's hands the ability to change the look people show to the world," Ferrara said. "That's a very cool thing."

For more information on the school, go to robertpaulacademy.com. For information on private career schools in Maryland, go to mhec.state.md.us and click on career training.

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