At Calvert School, the curriculum is traditional, but some of the techniques aren't

January 22, 1995|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,Sun Staff Writer

Merrill S. Hall III, headmaster of Baltimore's Calvert School, shows a visitor the bound "folder papers" of a first-grader named Edward Richardson. They include a number of short essays with titles such as "The Rainbow Is Pretty."

The compositions are without spelling or grammatical errors, and they are in elegant penmanship. They are dated November 1918.

"You'll see compositions like this throughout the school today," said Mr. Hall, 50. "And you'll see them at Barclay and Woodson," the Baltimore public schools that have adopted the Calvert curriculum.

"And you'll see them on sailboats in the Caribbean," he said, referring to the Calvert School's worldwide home-study courses

that reach 12,000 children, mostly in remote locations such as ranches, missionary homes, military outposts and boats.

The base for Calvert's operation is the 393-student private elementary school on Tuscany Road, not far from the Johns Hopkins University. Here, each morning of the school year, Mr. Hall stands at the door and greets each student with a handshake, a smile and a look squarely in the eyes.

That's one of the traditions that make Calvert unusual. Students aren't classified by grade, but by age. Sixth-graders are in the "12th age," for example. They aren't given letter grades, but numerals: An "A" is a "1."

And the curriculum is traditional and basic, designed so that it can be taught by parents around the world.

"There are certain givens here," said Mr. Hall, the fifth headmaster since the school was founded as a German kindergarten in 1897. "You can have lots of fun. You can use your personality, you can be creative, but you have to do things correctly from the get-go."

Calvert's home-school brochure shows how carefully the school prescribes mathematics instruction. Kindergartners learn number ideas from 1 to 20, addition and subtraction through the numeral 5. Sixth-graders learn "problem-solving, the four operations of fractions and decimals, geometry, integers, ratio, proportion, percent."

Calvert doesn't refer to "social studies" and never has. It teaches geography and history every year from the second grade on and still uses a revised version of "A Child's History of the World," written decades ago by the first headmaster, the legendary Virgil M. Hillyer.

The school has a science laboratory that would be the envy of a city public school. By the time students leave sixth grade, when most go on to private prep schools such as Gilman and Roland Park Country School, they have had 48 "experiences" in a planetarium donated by a wealthy parent.

Calvert has made a few bows to modern trends. It has an extensive computer system and wide-screen television sets in many classrooms. The school has developed videos in art and music, subjects taught twice a week through all seven years.

The Tuscany Road day school is also the laboratory for the nation's largest nonreligious home-study program, covering kindergarten through eighth grade.

The nonprofit home-study department was founded in 1906 by Mr. Hillyer. Legend has it that he launched home study to keep his teachers busy during a whooping cough epidemic.

Each home-school student receives a 23-pound box containing everything needed for a year's course: textbooks, paper, supplementary materials, crayons and eight pencils. A sixth-grader pays about $8,500 in the Calvert day school but in the home school has a choice of the $450 basic model or $670 advanced model with an "advisory teacher" in Baltimore to grade papers and eight tests a year.

Calvert parents and teachers say Calvert is not as structured as it appears and that they welcome the chance to help a century-old curriculum evolve.

"When I came four years ago, I thought everything would be rigid," said teacher Karen Burdnell, a former librarian in the city school system. "But it turned out that there's more flexibility than you think and more room for originality than you think."

Steven Thomas, who graduated from Calvert in 1959 and whose daughter Alexandra will graduate in June, said, "This is clearly a structured school, but it's not a cookie-cutter school. Kids are given the fundamentals, but they're allowed to express themselves through their writing and in a lot of other ways."

Audrey Thomas said that when her daughter needed extra help, her teachers spotted the need immediately "and gave it to her." Now, she said, her daughter has organizational skills and the ability to approach anything given to her. "Calvert gave our fTC daughter something that will never, never be taken from her," she said.

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