St. James School near Hagerstown to let girls board

November 22, 1990|By Kathy Lally

Change has come to the unassuming town of St. James, amid the quiet hills south of Hagerstown.

The post office remains in the general store; the barbershop still charges about $2 and relies on clippers instead of scissors. But there's news from these hills. Girls will be boarding at St. James School a half-mile away.

Put it in the category of historical footnote to the school's founding in 1842 as an Episcopal college, or its closing during the Civil War when most of the young men went south to fight for their cause, or its reopening in 1869 as a preparatory school for boys.

Girls got a foot in the door in 1978, when the Board of Trustees decided to admit them as day students. Now they will be given rooms of their own, following a recent board vote to admit them next fall to the residence halls.

St. James is catching up with the times. Most of the traditionally male boarding schools have long since admitted females to their dorms. The Rev. Richard H. Baker Jr., headmaster, says the move became inevitable for St. James.

"We're in a demographic trough," Mr. Baker said. "That's definitely part of what's going on. We'd like a bigger pool of applicants. But the primary reason is philosophic. The days of separating high school students by gender have long changed."

Mr. Baker said the school was responding to pressure from residents of the region when girls were admitted as day students. Then came pressure from out-of-town alumni,

who wanted their daughters to follow in their footsteps.

The school was founded in 1842 as a college by the Episcopal bishop of Maryland and St. John's Church in Hagerstown. A prep school was soon added because there wasn't enough education in the area to prepare potential students.

"It was that way until 1864," Mr. Baker said. "Most of the young men had gone to fight -- this school has always looked south, is the way we say it. It closed and reopened in 1869 as a prep school."

Today, the school has 137 students but would like to have 160, said Mr. Baker, who has been headmaster since 1984. About 20 to 25 girls attend every year as day students. The largest proportion of students comes from the Washington area, but youngsters are enrolled from seven foreign countries.

The school is traditional: chapel three times a week, athletics for everyone.

"The thing about being a church school is not so much going to chapel but concern for each other in relationships and values," Mr. Baker said. "We care about values and manners and how people relate to each other."

Mr. Baker describes the school as academically rigorous without being a pressure cooker. All 21 faculty members live on campus, with the 77 boarders. The cost is $13,000 for boarding students and $7,500 for day students.

The red-brick, Georgian-style buildings are enveloped by 80 acres amid rolling hills, known hereabouts as the Cumberland Valley. The Civil War battlefield of Antietam is near. A huge pre-Revolutionary tulip poplar stands in the center of the campus.

But it's just possible the school is most renowned for its food.

"We've got the best institutional food I've ever heard of," Mr. Baker said. "We have a genius lady [Kathy Kline] who does it. We even have crisp vegetables."

Mr. Baker was given extensive authority when he became headmaster in 1984. But the trustees made one thing absolutely clear.

"If anything happened to her, I would be in trouble," Mr. Baker said.

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