At Maryvale, first lay leader brings faithful approach, 'real life' perspective

Tracey Ford, the new president at Maryvale Preparatory School in Brooklandville, knows that little girls don't grow up dreaming of being administrators at independent schools.

But when Ford, who has spent more than 30 years in education, first began her career, she quickly figured out where she could impact students the most.

"I always said I'd like to be the head (of school) because I think that's where you can really make a difference," said Ford, who will preside over the opening of the school year at Maryvale on Thursday, Aug. 30. "I think that there's a little bit of common sense about being a head of school, and I hope that I bring that common sense."

But when it came to selecting Maryvale's first-ever lay leader, perhaps more important than common sense is her local experience. That's what caught the attention of the committee performing a national search to find a replacement for Sr. Shawn Maguire, who retired in June after leading Maryvale for 34 years.

Ford began working as director of development at her alma mater, Notre Dame Preparatory School, in 1981. She held that post until moving to St. Paul's School for Girls to serve as that school's assistant head of school for advancement, in 1999. After a 10-year stint at SPSG, Ford was hired as director of development at Towson University.

"I really believe in girls' schools, and a girls Catholic school is really special," she said. "Baltimore is rich with independent schools and Catholic school options, and I think that has kept us all on the cutting edge — and a little more competitive — because there's such a wealth of choice in Baltimore."

Betty Lerch Visconage, a Maryvale alumna who chaired the national search committee for Maguire's replacement, said the goal was to find a candidate who "really had a passion and background for girls' education."

"We were not restricting ourselves to only people who had been in Baltimore, but certainly that pedigree that Tracey brought to the table in terms of her experience with Notre Dame Prep, St. Paul's School for Girls, we considered that a tremendous added value," Visconage said.

"She's someone who just has a lot of creative ideas about education, girls education, and certainly Maryvale in particular," she said.

Some of those ideas about education were gleaned at Towson.

"What I decided is that I could use that higher-ed experience, learning how education works in a more highly complex environment and, really importantly, learning what colleges are looking for," she said of her time at Towson. "Are we preparing them?"

After Towson University, Ford said, she understands that students need to be independent and confident enough to maneuver in a new environment, but comfortable enough in their own abilities to ask for help.

"Our job," she said, "is to get them ready, to nudge them out of the nest."

To hear her tell it, Maryvale is well equipped on all fronts to prepare students for higher education. She's not entering her tenure with a grand list of improvements that need making. On the physical side, the school is nearly complete with a multi-million dollar addition of Erinn McCarthy Humanities Hall and a new turf athletic field. Academically, Maryvale initiatives — such as its program that gives each student an iPad to use each year — have kept the school on par with or ahead of the schools it competes for students with each year.

With that in mind, Ford said her main plan is to simply, "take what is already really phenomenal that is going on at Maryvale and …really communicate that and get that understood in the community."

"I think so many great things are happening here, I want more people to know about those," Ford said.

That's a task that will take place largely outside the castle walls. Inside, Ford has the unenviable challenge of filling the role left by Sr. Shawn, a Maryvale institution who was beloved by the students. Ford knows it will be impossible to replicate Sr. Shawn, but said she's thought about how to make a similar impact in her own way.

Ford had her own Sr. Shawn-like figure in Sr. Helen Marie, the former headmistress at NDP. A picture of Ford and Sr. Helen Marie sits behind her desk at Maryvale, a shot of the back of their heads with arms draped over one another's shoulders.

"Every day, I think about what she would have done in this situation," Ford said. "The impact of those women … I think it's their wisdom and the thoughtfulness of Sr. Shawn and her pastoral care for everyone that's a life lesson for me."

As a practicing Catholic, Ford fulfilled one of the "non-negotiable" criteria the school was looking for in Maryvale's first lay leader, Visconage said. But where it was pastoral care that drew students close to Sr. Shawn, Ford plans to use her "real life experiences" to relate.

"I think about the differences, and what Sr. Shawn brought was, as a religious person, her life, her family was this school," Ford said. "For me, that's juxtaposed with the experiences I've had being a daughter, mother, friend — all those sorts of things."

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