A primer to help parents pick a private school

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Howard County is known for its fine public school system.

But for those parents who feel private school is the best option, many choices are available within the county lines.

Although the words private school often conjure the image of the rich and elite, the families of those who attend say that is a stereotype.

The dozens of nonpublic schools, as they are called by the State Department of Education, are as varied as the students who attend.

The county is home to schools steeped in tradition, newer schools with fresh ideas, schools affiliated with religious organizations and schools for children with learning differences.

"Private schools are not in competition with public schools," said Ron Goldblatt, executive director of the Association of Independent Maryland Schools.

"They are not serving nearly the numbers the public schools are serving. An independent school does not have to be all things for all people."

While nonpublic schools must adhere to state guidelines, each independent school defines its mission.

It is not possible to list the merits of every school, so the following is a sampling of what private schools have to offer in Howard County.

Glenelg Country School, set on 87 acres in the hills of Glenelg in western Howard, is awaiting its golden anniversary. It began in the historic Glenelg Manor house with 35 students in 1954.

It now serves nearly 720 students from pre-kindergarten through high school, with hundreds on a waiting list.

Each school level is contained in one building, with a separate principal and staff for lower, primary, middle and upper schools.

The average class size is 16 students.

The school is looking forward to a $13 million expansion that is planned to open in time for the school year beginning in fall 2004, according to headmaster Ryland Chapman III.

"What's nice about Glenelg is that it's a small, tight-knit community," said Clarksville parent Darlene Mikolasko, whose two children attend third and sixth grade. "The headmaster knows everyone by name. And the curriculum is tough. They really stress how to find sources, write papers and orally defend them. There are poetry contests where the children recite poems in front of parents and judges.

"These children become well-rounded," she added. "It's wonderful because these are things that they need to do in college and beyond when they are working in careers."

The longevity also makes Glenelg attractive, Mikolasko said.

"It's got a proven track record," she said. "It has stood the test of time."

Another school that has stood the test of time is Trinity School in Ellicott City.

Trinity has grown from a high school for girls in the 1930s to its current 390 pupils from kindergarten through eighth grade.

Its five buildings sit on wooded land. The school boasts modern science and art labs with in-depth learning.

The curriculum offers a college preparatory program combined with religious values, said Principal Frangiska Lewis.

In this school, where parents stay as volunteers long after their children graduate, the average class size is about 20 pupils.

"We know each family, not just the child," Lewis said. "Because of our small size, the children receive individual attention. Throughout the school day, the ideas of virtues are intertwined with the studies."

The school's Christian values attract some parents.

"I think it's great that we can pray in school," said Columbia parent Patti Neuman whose daughter Jessica is an eighth-grader at the school. "I feel you can never pray too much."

Neuman also likes the school's academic policies.

"They really take the extra effort to assist a child who needs help," she said.

Music teacher Emily Wilkinson is a Trinity graduate who has returned as a teacher.

"I always had a close relationship with the teachers," Wilkinson said. "Because of my start at Trinity, I have always been comfortable approaching teachers and asking for help. Being on the other side now as a teacher, I love that the students are so nice and always excited and happy to see me and learn in class. It's a very nurturing environment."

The Young School was founded in 1988 as a preschool program.

It has slowly grown to a preschool through seventh-grade program, with plans to include eighth grade in the fall. Locations are in Columbia and Gambrills.

The school describes its vision as fostering personal excellence by providing a learning environment in which children discover and develop their gifts and abilities.

The elementary school is home to 220 pupils.

"We don't stop at teaching content," said Principal Melanie Pontell. "With our project-based curriculum, we teach how to learn. We have children delve deeper into a topic. The work is hands on. For instance, in first grade the kids were learning about simple machines. They didn't simply study a textbook and regurgitate the facts. They made simple machines and presented them to the class. They are immersed in projects. When playing hockey in P.E. class, they also learn the history of hockey."

The school's philosophy calls for considering music and art as part of the core curriculum.

"It is our job to make sure students are growing in every way," Pontell said. "If that is where a child's talent lies, that is valued right along with math and science."

The idea is attractive to parents.

"I really like their project-based curriculum," said Columbia parent Kristi Koumentakos, whose daughter Hope is in first grade at the Young School.

"When we were choosing a school, we felt the public schools were a little too big for our comfort level," Koumentakos said. "But we wanted her to be in the real world with some diversity. In Hope's kindergarten class, there were Asian, African-American and Indian children.

"We wanted to give her a really good foundation. The Young School is a really happy place where people are happy to work and the kids are happy to be there. In a school with 900 kids, they can't give the attention to the kids and the parents that they can at the Young School, and I'm willing to pay for that."

Other schools serve children with special needs.

The Norbel School, whose motto is "The Perfect Fit for a Special Child" has been in Elkridge for two years after purchasing and refurbishing the building that once was Elkridge Elementary School. Before calling Howard County home, the school operated in a rented space in Baltimore for more than 20 years.

It is an independent, first-through-10th grade school for children with learning difficulties such as dyslexia, language delays, attention-deficit disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, said Krys Renzi, a spokeswoman.

The school has 110 students and has the capacity for 230.

Nearly every teacher holds a degree in special education. An occupational therapist is on campus.

The school teaches multisensory techniques. An academic program is tailored to each child, Renzi said.

In each class of about 12 students, children perform different tasks, each learning in their own way, she said.

If children are auditory learners, they might wear headphones and follow in a book. If they are visual learners, they might look at objects and read about them. If they are more tactile, they might mold letters out of clay.

"We find their way of learning, and we move them forward," Renzi said. "We help the child become well-rounded. We don't only work with them academically, we work on helping build their social and emotional skills, as well."

Renzi's son Zachary is a 10th-grader in the program.

"My son was shy and felt he didn't do anything right before we came here," she said. "After two days of visiting, he saw all the children doing all kinds of things. He knew this is where he wanted to be. Here he was not seen as the only child who couldn't write. Now he has social skills to make friends, and he can advocate for himself."

No one falls through the cracks, Renzi said.

"If a student is not learning, then that is not the right way to work with that student. The parents are invited to discuss what is another way to work with that child until we find what really works for him."

Mount Airy parent Dawn Meushaw found the school to be a lifesaver for her son Scott, a 10th-grader with ADHD.

Scott started at Norbel four years ago.

"My son had no self-esteem and was failing out of public school," Meushaw said. "He is now a straight-A student and he recently was chosen to go to Australia as a student ambassador in the People to People program. He was one of 13 kids chosen out of about 100. I know he never would have had the confidence to compete for a spot in that program if it weren't for Norbel."

Choosing a school is a personal decision.

Administrators recommend that parents ask questions to ensure the school's values and philosophies meet theirs.

Parents should visit the school and ensure they and their child are comfortable in the surroundings.

Once the child is enrolled, parents should make time to volunteer and become involved in the school.

Two types of nonpublic schools are approved by the Maryland State Board of Education -- those that hold a Certificate of Approval from the State Board of Education, and religious schools that do not need a certificate but must be registered as church-exempt.

Attendance in a school that doesn't meet those standards might not meet the compulsory school attendance requirement.

For a full list of nonpublic schools in Howard County approved by the State Department of Education: www. msde.state.md.us/nonpublic. To request the Directory of Nonpublic Educational Programs Approved by the Maryland State Department of Education: 410-767-0407.

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