A face lift and a new start for the old Fork school

August 14, 1994|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Sun Staff Writer

Peggy Wisnom Peeling remembers attending Fork Elementary School in the mid-1940s, when students were allowed to run to the corner candy store for lunch and the major event of the school year was the annual May Pole dance on a spring afternoon.

That was during the heyday of the four-classroom brick building that sits on 2 1/2 acres on Harford Road in the rural community of Fork, just over the Harford County line in Baltimore County.

Over time, as the surrounding community expanded and newer schools were built, the 1921-era school became outmoded and was phased out. In the late 1960s, it was made a kindergarten annex to Kingsville Elementary up the road on Sunshine Avenue, and in 1978 it was closed.

Three years later, the school was sold as surplus property by Baltimore County.

But this fall, at age 73, the building will be returned to its former life as a school for young children. Free State Montessori School, a private nonprofit, nonsectarian alternative school for elementary-level children, has purchased the building, with the help of a state day-care financing loan, from a private owner. The new owners plan to relocate classes there from Forest Hill when the school year starts Sept. 7.

The school will be home to Montessori-educated children from toddlers to fifth-graders. It also will house a year-round day-care program called Children's House that provides before- and after-school care, and summer and vacation care, to children who are not enrolled in the daily Montessori program.

Free State will maintain one pre-kindergarten class at its current site on Rock Spring Road, but the rest of the classes and teachers' offices will move to the new site, just south of Harford and Fork roads.

"I feel very privileged to be able to be in this building," said Claire Salkowski, founder and director of Free State Montessori School. "It's just the size we wanted, and I love the idea that it was a school before."

"I think it's wonderful that they are carrying on the tradition," said Mrs. Peeling, who, years after attending Fork School, went back to teach there in 1970. She is the second of three generations in her family to attend or teach at the Fork School.

Her mother, Mary Wisnom, taught third-graders there off and on from 1931 to 1954. And Peggy's daughter Susan and son Jim attended kindergarten there when Fork School was the Kingsville elementary annex, jokingly referred to as "Fork University" by parents.

"I'm so glad it's going to be a school again," said Mary Wisnom, who at 89 still lives three-quarters of a mile down Harford Road in the house she moved to after her marriage in 1935. She remembers playing baseball out back with her third-graders, most of whom came from farm families in the area.

"It was a pretty nice school at the time," Mary Wisnom recalls.

She and her daughter came to the old school on a recent evening "to see if they were cutting my room apart," she said. "But they weren't. They were fixing it up."

Indeed, workers are moving feverishly to get the old brick building into shape. They are covering plaster walls with sheet rock, refinishing much of the heart pine floor to its original luster and replacing the 6-foot-long windows that line the four sides of the building.

New plumbing and electrical wiring is being installed to bring the building up to code, and the old radiators are being replaced with a new heating and air-conditioning system.

But aside from the repositioning of one wall to create office space in the front of the school, the interior structure will remain much the same, said Ms. Salkowski. It will still be a four-classroom building with a center hall running from front to back, and the 12-foot ceilings will remain.

She said the large classrooms are ideal for the Montessori open-classroom style, in which the teacher moves freely about the room while children work somewhat independently. And the school's location "in this village" is ideal for the Montessori mission, which encourages development of the whole child within his larger community, she said.

"This is where you can 'live' community," she said. "We've got this wonderful, close-knit rural community here. There's even a cornfield across the street."

Ms. Salkowski founded Free State Montessori in 1980 on the philosophy developed by the late Dr. Maria Montessori, a French physician and educator who believed that a child achieves his maximum potential working at his own individual level in a less restricted environment than that in traditional public schools.

Ms. Salkowski spent five years teaching in public and private schools before turning on to the Montessori method after seeing her young daughter excel in such a school.

She started Free State in rented space in the First Presbyterian Church on Main Street in Bel Air and stayed there seven years. Then the school moved to a commercial office building in Forest Hill for another seven years.

Now, she believes, it has found a permanent home.

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