On one of those warm days last week, Bryn Mawr, a North Baltimore private school for girls, had the look of a British school in the tropics. The wide doors of the Gordon Building, a rambling mansion now housing school offices, were thrown open to gentle late-summer breezes. Girls and young women, dressed in white blouses and blue-green skirts, gathered in small groups to eat lunch outside. Only the palms were missing.
On this, the second day of school, there was a sense of excitement and of possibility. At a morning convocation, Joshua Shoemaker, chairman of the school's fine and performing arts department, explained the ground rules of the regular get-togethers for middle- and upper-schoolers.
By May, each senior will have presided over one convocation -- an exercise in public speaking long since abandoned by most schools.
Rebecca MacMillan Fox also was in her second day as head of an independent school. A scholar of French literature who has been in higher education administration for more than two decades -- most recently as dean of William Smith College in Geneva, N.Y. -- she has made an unusual career move down a few grades.
She thinks it's a natural move, one just right for her. A student -- and champion -- of women's education, Dr. Fox said she would continue that interest at the all-female Bryn Mawr. Then, too, there is the recoupling, at least in spirit, of the Baltimore prep school and Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, where Dr. Fox, 47, earned three degrees (bachelor's, master's and doctor of philosophy) and worked for a decade as assistant dean.
The Baltimore school was founded as a "feeder" school for the college of the same name, but that connection dissolved decades ago, and Bryn Mawr College recruited not a single graduate from Bryn Mawr School this fall.
You don't have to go far on the Bryn Mawr campus to find the names of M. Carey Thomas, Mary Garrett and the other "rebels" -- Dr. Fox's word -- who loom large in Bryn Mawr's and Baltimore's history.
She was attracted to Bryn Mawr, Dr. Fox said, "by a curriculum that incorporates the values of a classical education." Bryn Mawr still requires Latin of middle-schoolers, a tradition that goes back to Edith Hamilton, the classical scholar who was the school's first headmistress.
These days, the "mistress" has disappeared from the head's title, and Bryn Mawr students who want to study Greek have to walk to nearby Gilman. (Gilman, Bryn Mawr and Roland Park Country School allow upper schoolers to take courses on all three campuses.) Though Dr. Fox is excited about her new job, she worries about some things. One is that tuition, which tops at $10,755, will begin to pull independent schools out of reach, even of middle-income families. "I saw that happening in higher education," she said, "and it's terrifying.
"People are becoming skeptical about the product, too, and that's another concern. Independent education is a wonderful opportunity, but we have to guard against it becoming the province of those who can pay. We have to maintain as large a fund as we can for financial aid." A related concern is the gulf in quality between schools like Bryn Mawr and those in nearby public systems.
Though 11 percent of Bryn Mawr's 769 students are African-American, Dr. Fox said "closing that gap will be one of the most complicated problems I'll face. It's not nearly enough to have summer programs and invite young people on the campus, though there's nothing wrong with doing that. What we have to do is find ways of making genuine connections between every level of Bryn Mawr and every level of the public school systems."
Dr. Fox, who will be installed Sept. 22, said she will continue a "commuter marriage" with her husband, William S. Green, a religion and classics professor at the University of Rochester. Their two sons are enrolled at Gilman School.
Speaking of single-sex competition, the nation's largest college scholarship contest for women culminates Saturday in Atlantic City, N.J.
Sponsors say the Miss America competition, which moves from local to state to the national level as contestants are eliminated, awards $24 million in tuition grants annually to hundreds of young women. The national winner will pick up a $40,000 scholarship to the school of her choice -- after she spends a year traveling the country to promote the competition. The first runner-up will receive $30,000.
This is a unique contest because winners are judged partly by how they look in swimsuits and gowns. The contest sponsors this year have established a 900 number for viewers to vote on elimination of the swimsuit segment, but the gown competition