Leaving the party while music is playing

July 02, 1995|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Sun Staff Writer

Lila Lohr has been giving advice for a long time. Soon, she'll see if it was any good.

"I have been talking to girls for 30 years about taking risks," said the departing headmistress of St. Paul's School for Girls. "It's time for me to listen to my own advice. And real risks are when you don't know the outcome."

When Ms. Lohr decided last fall to leave the private Brooklandville school she has led for nine years, she had no destination.

But, said the divorced mother of three grown children: "My mother always told me to leave the party when the music was playing. The school is on an upturn."

This week, when her risk becomes reality, the 49-year-old headmistress leaves not only the hilly St. Paul's campus off Falls Road but also her hometown of Baltimore, where she has spent most of her life.

She'll also be entering nearly foreign territory -- a school with female and male students -- as she becomes the first headmistress of the 825-student coeducational Princeton Day School in New Jersey.

With two exceptions, Ms. Lohr's education and career have been in private girls' schools.

The former Lila Boyce graduated from Garrison Forest School in Baltimore County, Vassar College in upstate New York, where she majored in political science, and then all-female Goucher College, where she earned a master's in education.

She also studied for a year as an undergraduate at Yale University, attending in 1966 -- the first year women were enrolled there.

Her arrival at St. Paul's in 1986 was preceded by 15 years at the Bryn Mawr School as a teacher, lower and middle school director and assistant headmistress. Earlier, she was a teacher and coach at the coeducational Independent Day School in Middletown, Conn.

For someone who has spent much of her life in single-sex education, she is not as fervent about its benefits as one might expect.

"Some girls need and will flourish in an all-girls' school, and some girls need and will flourish in a coeducational school," she said. "There is interesting research that women my age who have gone to women's colleges are more successful."

But more importantly, the research "has made us much more cognizant that classrooms are dominated by some kids," she said. As teachers, "we need to meet the needs of all kids in our classes."

For instance, Ms. Lohr said that when she asks a class a question, she "literally" bites her tongue for 45 seconds so that more than the first wave of respondents can answer.

Despite administrative duties, Ms. Lohr has never stopped teaching. This year she taught a fifth-grade social studies

course.

By choice, she won't teach next year at Princeton, "and I will

miss that," she said.

She is quick to add that she will miss St. Paul's, where she has been a popular and dynamic leader.

"She has been an outstanding headmistress," said John Saxton, president of the 36-year-old school's board of trustees. He listed among her accomplishments St. Paul's Plus, a day care center opened in 1989, and the nurturing of cooperation with St. Paul's School, their brother institution up the hill.

Echoing others on campus and throughout the community, Mr. Saxton said, "absolutely, we will miss Lila."

Ms. Lohr talks proudly of the school's efforts to get its girls into the world. "We're not doing our students any service to keep them in a protected environment."

The school requires 40 hours of community service and offers opportunities for students to see different cultures and areas, through exchange programs and a more diverse student population than there was when Ms. Lohr arrived.

St. Paul's has a minority enrollment of about 14 percent. Its enrollment has grown from 275 to about 320 students in grades five through 12. Class size remain small -- the average is 16 students.

Despite the school's bucolic setting and its lofty tuition -- $10,200 next year -- Ms. Lohr denies that it is full of smart, rich youngsters.

"Many of our families have stretched beyond reason to send their kids here," she said, adding that a quarter of the students receive financial aid. Likewise, "we don't just take all the smart kids who apply."

When Ms. Lohr began her job search, she looked all over the country, thinking initially about the West Coast because her children live in California. But "I knew that this was where I should be going," she said of Princeton.

The feeling seems mutual. "The entire community is really, really excited by her coming," said Jacqueline Asplundh, Princeton's associate director of communications. "She was the overwhelming choice" among four finalists.

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