If you're looking to find the Ruxton Country School in Baltimore County, be careful. You might miss it.
It's not that the school -- in the 1400 block of Berwick Road in the heart of Ruxton -- is off the beaten path. It's just that it doesn't look like a school. It looks like a house. Probably because it is one.
But the home-like setting that has been a major attraction of the independent school is now threatened. Enrollment at Ruxton Country and Middle schools has nearly doubled in the past 10 years, to 124 students, and the house can't accommodate all the students.
The need to accommodate a growing elementary-age school population and the desire to have all of its students on one campus has Ruxton Country School officials seeking a new site. Some recent vandalism had nothing to do with its decision to seek more space, officials said.
"Admissions is really growing," said Amanda Mitchell, admissions director for the school. "I think people come to us because they find it a very homey, warm place. . . . But we can't always fit them in."
In fact, the school doesn't fit all the students in. Only the pre-first-grade through fourth-grade students attend school at the Berwick Road site. The fifth through eighth grades attend class in leased space at nearby Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church. A northern Baltimore County public school, Sparks Elementary, also leases space in a church to accommodate an overflow of students.
The surge of business at Ruxton mirrors the experiences of many other private schools around the Baltimore metropolitan area. The city and Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties had 157 private schools open during the 1980s. Saddled with the most troubled school system, the city saw the greatest number of private schools open -- 57, according to the Maryland Department of Education.
During the decade, enrollment at private schools in the metropolitan area increased almost 50 percent, from 26,594 to 39,292. Baltimore County saw the greatest increase with 3,985 students.
Public school enrollment in the metro area during that time dropped 15 percent.
"We don't take it personally," said Baltimore County school spokesman Richard E. Bavaria. "Many people seek out private schools for personal reasons, religious reasons. We've never taken [the increase] as a condemnation of public schools. In fact, we enjoy very close relations with a number of private schools."
At the same time, enrollment in Baltimore County public schools dropped 7 percent, from 92,935 students in 1981 to 86,841 this year, after enrollment had bottomed out at 80,195 in 1986.
More people are realizing that they can afford independent schools through financial aid, said Sarah Donnelly of the Maryland Association of Independent Schools, a Severna Park-based group that represents 45 schools in Maryland. Last year, independent schools, which have no religious affiliation, provided about $13 million in financial aid, she said.
At Ruxton, founded by a Swiss tutor in 1913 for the neighborhood children, students play along the grounds as if they were in their own back yards. Older students at the middle school each morning discuss current events from a sofa in the "Common Room." At each site the atmosphere is structured and relaxed.
Elizabeth Barrett, who sends her 8-year-old daughter, Liza, to the school, said she chose Ruxton because of its small class sizes -- an average of one teacher to 16 students -- and because the school worked on improving self-esteem as well as academics. In Baltimore County, by comparison, the teacher-to-student ratio averages 1 to 24.
Parents pay more than $4,000 in annual tuition and drive their children to Ruxton from as far away as Catonsville and Dundalk. One child used to come daily from York, Pa., 45 miles north.
The school began searching for a new site two years ago, but has run into problems, school Headmistress Judith Banker-Barrett said. Some abandoned city schools it originally eyed would have required expensive asbestos removal. Another prospective site, at Falls Road and Seminary Avenue, turned out to have wetlands that couldn't be turned into playing fields.
Despite the disappointments, Ruxton officials hope their search results in finding a new school in the next three to five years. A fund-raiser also has been brought in to talk to the board on how to go about raising the $1 million that probably will be needed for the project.
The school ideally would like to find a larger house so it could retain its homey feel.
"The board members were very concerned about the setting," Banker-Barrett said. "But I've always believed the school is not the building. The school is the people."