At Woodmont Academy, a Catholic school in western Howard County, students in art classes paint images of the Madonna. In science, they talk about the soul and how it separates humans from animals. They celebrate All Saints Day by dressing as their favorite saints, and they're told to be nice to others because that's what Jesus wants them to do.
It's all part of a curriculum called Integral Foundation, which stresses the "formation of the whole person," said Executive Director Scott Brown. The idea is to develop a child's character and intellect while teaching about Jesus and helping others.
One parent, Tom Cunningham, who has four children at Woodmont, likes the system and the school so much he's planning to give $900,000.
But there's a catch: The school must raise a million dollars by the end of the year before it can receive the money from Cunningham.
"It just seemed like the right approach," said Cunningham, who lives in Ellicott City and is chief executive officer of a Baltimore Internet consulting company called Alabanza Corp. "It's a bit easier for my wife and I to donate money when we know other people are contributing as well."
Brown said the school is well on its way to meeting the goal. But he noted that this particular fundraising challenge has a built-in obstacle. The money will be used to pay back loans for construction that has taken place, so donors are less motivated than if they were chipping in for something that has yet to be built.
Woodmont, founded in Baltimore County in 1995, moved to its Howard County location - two miles west of the fairgrounds off Route 144 - about 2 1/2 years ago. The move, which included the purchase of 66 acres and the creation of school buildings at the former site of the Howard County Fire Training Academy, cost about $12.5 million, Brown said. That money must now be repaid, and a goal of $2.5 million was set for this year, he said.
Cunningham said his donation is a way of nudging the fundraising along. "The gift is about supporting the school and helping it advance so it can get to more children," he said.
The school enrolls 317 children in prekindergarten classes through grade eight. The current facilities, which include 24 classrooms, a chapel and other rooms, can hold about 600 students, Brown said. If current plans become reality, the school will be large enough for about 1,500 students.
Because Woodmont is not affiliated with a parish, it does not have the built-in financial support of a church and its congregation, Brown said. Woodmont's tuition is about $6,500 a year, and Woodmont manages to raise about a half-million dollars a year through normal fundraising activities, Brown said.
The school uses the Integral Formation approach, which was developed by the Legionaries of Christ and licensed by the National Consultants for Education Inc.
The goal of Integral Formation is to weave together what it considers the four strands of a student's development. Simplified, these are: intellectual formation (book-learning), character formation (good behavior), spiritual formation (a personal relationship with Christ) and apostolic formation (compassion and reaching out to others).
"It has to happen throughout the day," Brown said. "It can't happen just in religion class."
But he noted: "Obviously, if you're developing a math lesson, sometimes it's just math."
Integral Formation, licensed to schools around the nation, codifies an education system that many Catholic schools practice anyway, said John Farrell, the school's principal.
"It's somewhat intuitive," said Farrell, who taught in public and Catholic schools before coming to Woodmont in 2005. "What we attempt to do here is put the whole thing together, and with Christ in the center, it all fits."
The school's mission, he said, is to "form good Christian leaders." To achieve that goal, the curriculum has to be challenging, he said. But the school day still has time for prayers and for Mass.
Susan Norton, the lower school academic coordinator in charge of prekindergarten through third grade, put it this way: "When you're talking to a child, you're teaching all different parts at the same time. We don't want to turn out someone who is brilliant but is a very unpleasant person to be around."
Nick Fleming, a seventh-grader who lives in Ellicott City, said he's been at Woodmont since kindergarten. He likes that the school teaches "everything," he said, "but we don't have to believe it." For example, he said, in science class, the students learn about evolution, but also about the church's teachings.
Colin Turgeon, 13, an eighth-grader who lives in Eldersburg, noted that discussions in class often focus on questions of faith and spirituality.
Students at Woodmont wear uniforms. Starting in third grade, they are divided by sex, mostly, Brown said, because boys and girls learn in different ways.
Mass is celebrated Thursday and Friday mornings, and each class has the opportunity to have its own Mass once a year.
Last week, seventh-grade boys celebrated the Mass with many parents and grandparents in attendance. The Rev. Steven Reilly spoke about Christmas, and urged the congregants to focus on giving.
"The greatest gifts aren't the material ones," he said. He told the story of a man who received sacks of gold through his window for each daughter's dowry. When the third daughter was of age, the man looked out the window, trying to see who was throwing in the gold.
St. Nicholas, knowing the man would do that, dropped the gold down the chimney instead. That, said Reilly, is how the story of Santa Claus began.
Michael Preis of Ellicott City has four children, two at Woodmont and two who have graduated. He has been affiliated with the school since 1998 and said he likes the way Woodmont makes religion accessible to children.
"They make it really fun and pleasant," he said.
He pointed to All Saints Day as an example.
Pupils dress up as a favorite saint and give presentations about the saint's life. The children have a good time but also learn from the experience, he said.