AMID CONTINUING REPORTS about the generally troubled Baltimore city public schools, there are some promising signs. Key among them are two schools that have collaborated with the private Calvert School to improve student performance.
The Barclay School, which adopted the Calvert curriculum four years ago, has surpassed even the most optimistic projections for improvement. This fall, Carter G. Woodson Elementary in Cherry Hill, signed on to the Calvert way of doing things. It's too early to predict if Woodson will be as successful as Barclay, but school administrators are optimistic.
All of this excitement over the Calvert School probably would not have surprised its first headmaster, Virgil Hillyer, who was always confident that his system of learning was ideal for most children.
Hillyer was 23 years old in 1899 when he came to Baltimore eager to employ his innovative ideas for teaching children. He had been recruited from the Browning School in New York by Mrs. George Huntington Williams of Baltimore.
The forerunner of Calvert, the Boys' and Girls' Primary School, was started in 1896 by a group of parents as a German kindergarten under the direction of Fraulein Martha Auguste Schurman over a drug store at 823 Park Ave. By 1899, more grades were added and there was a desire to add manual training to the curriculum. It was at this point that Mrs. Williams discovered Mr. Hillyer, who was skilled at teaching history and manual training.
As a Harvard University student, Mr. Hillyer discovered that many of his fellow classmates had trouble with such basic skills as spelling and punctuation. He decided that his classmates' early education was to blame. He proposed to improve elementary education by demanding discipline and using extensive drilling. He was an early proponent of flash cards, which conveyed information in a fun way.
He selected the name Calvert for the school because it was the family name of the British rulers of Maryland. Also, of local significance are the school colors of black and yellow, selected from Baltimore's flag.
In 1900 a new building for the school was erected at the corner of Chase Street and Morton Alley; Mr. Hillyer, who had studied architecture, had a hand in its design. He is credited with introducing many innovations in education to Baltimore, including the use of green chalkboards and yellow chalk; it's said to be easier to read than the traditional white chalk on black boards. At his school, zweiback, a type of German bread, was the preferred snack, being considered healthier than sugar-loaded cookies. The school had a gym, but Mr. Hillyer thought that children should play games for recreation, not competition. Beautiful murals encouraged interest in classical subjects.
He assembled an excellent faculty, choosing first-rate teachers and then leaving them more or less free to do their work. He frowned on the use of textbooks for young children, believing that teachers should beable to interpret their subjects. Some of the parents were horrified to learn that the children were being taught to read and write before they learned the alphabet, but their protests ceased when they saw the results of the method.
Generations of Calvert students have used his multiplication chart, which may be read in several directions, to learn to multiply.
With a stopwatch in hand, Mr. Hillyer insisted on speed in the students' work, saying "the chief mental trouble with children, as with grown-ups, is lazy-mindedness . . . Most of the trouble and evil in the world, the misery, the diseases, the crime are due to doing as you please instead of doing as you ought, and no other factor forces such concentration as does limited time."
He believed in hard work, self-discipline and self-expression through writing. He held frequent assemblies to help children develop poise and confidence. He also was a champion of the regular reviewing of information. The first month of each school term was a review of the preceding grade. Subjects taught at his school included: astronomy, history, geography, geology, botany and poetry. And, remember, the school only went to the sixth grade, or, as it is called, the "Twelfth Age."
He was a proponent of education "not only to get a living, but also to make life worth living." So the drills were accompanied by fun and games. Calvert School had its own dance classes and frequent parties were held for students and parents at the nearby Belvedere Hotel, which was built in 1901. These always had a theme: The Fairy Ball, The Dance of All Nations, etc. Each called for attractive and exotic costumes. There were plays: Shakespeare, of course; some were performed in French.
It was felt that a child should feel a lively sense of progress. Bound copies of students' work were sent home for perusal. Before reaching the bound stage, students were required to re-copy their work until they were correct.
About 1905 Mr. Hillyer established the Home Instruction Department or the home schooling office. This was advertised in magazines such as Good Housekeeping and National Geographic. By the 1908-1909 school year, children in Alaska, Cuba, France, Italy and Turkey as well as various parts of the United States were studying precisely the same courses as the corresponding grades in Baltimore.
Children of missionaries, corporate executives stationed abroad, parents in the diplomatic service, children of circus and other acting troupes in transit, children living far from schools and invalid children profited from the Calvert system. In 1920 there were more than 3,000 correspondence students enrolled in the Calvert program.
How did this work? A teacher in Baltimore would turn in her outline for the day, which Mr. Hillyer would correct, edit, rewrite and approve. His secretary made copies of the material. On Fridays a week's worth of lessons were mailed. At the end of the 10th lesson, parents mailed the results to the school for evaluation and criticism. Mr. Hillyer worked every night, often until midnight, preparing home schooling materials for mailing.
Despite the joy he brought to others, Mr. Hillyer's personal life was sad. In 1906 his first wife, Reba, died in childbirth, and the baby died, too. He married Virginia Ann White in 1926.
Two years earlier, the school had moved into a new building on Tuscany Road and Mr. Hillyer was enjoying his new home, Castalia, across the road. On Dec. 16, 1931, he was full of plans for the Christmas assembly which was to take place on Dec. 18, when he was stricken with acute appendicitis at home. He died two days later at the age of 56. His infant son died the next year.
Under other headmasters, notably Edward W. Brown, Calvert has thrived. Calvert graduates have made their mark in many phases of the community's life.
It is not possible to mention the many people who have been instrumental in the life of the school which will celebrate its centennial in 1999. It is remarkable that a system of learning that was introduced so long ago, is still viable.
Jane Tinsley Swope writes from Baltimore.