Changes at Gunston School: days, boys Facility will become coeducational in fall

July 15, 1996|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

CENTREVILLE -- The horses soon will go to good homes, and the pasture will be turned into an athletic field. Dorm rooms will be converted into classrooms, and the clanging of locker doors will ring for the first time across the remote riverfront campus.

The Gunston School is becoming Gunston Day School. And what has been a girls boarding school for nearly a half century will become a more selective day school with more boys than girls in its freshman class this fall.

With more rigorous academic standards, a commitment to preparing students for prestigious colleges and the potential to nearly triple a tiny enrollment, Gunston is poised for the new century. Although the transformation carries some risks, Gunston can fill a need that has gone unmet for years while

ensuring its stability, school officials say.

"It's a great opportunity for us to maintain our mission of providing a quality education without compromising our standards," said Peter A. Sturtevant Jr., Gunston's head of school for the four years.

Although single-gender education for girls is enjoying a renaissance in the wake of studies showing that young women mature more academically and in leadership roles without boys in the classroom, coeducational schools are in greater demand.

"I don't think Gunston is reflective of a national trend," said Meg Moulton, executive director of the National Coalition of Girls Schools, adding that applications are up nearly 30 percent in the past five years at schools the coalition represents.

"The marketplace preference is coed, day [schools] in urban and suburban environments," said Heather Hoerle of the National Association of Independent Schools in Washington.

Sturtevant thinks there is a place for all-girl schools but that a 30-acre campus in rural Queen Anne's County is not it. "The all-girls schools that are truly thriving in the academic sense are in the cities," he said.

Meanwhile, he said, Gunston was "being pushed to take wayward kids."

That meant a lot of nearly individual, often remedial, instruction for students who had had unhappy experiences in other schools, and the need for therapeutic services that Gunston's staff is not equipped to provide.

It also meant that Gunston's staff of 20 had to serve students with wide-ranging abilities: from those capable of advanced placement courses to others "who needed a lot more attention to reach their potential," said board member Anne Shoemaker.

While Gunston has struggled with this situation, it has ignored another need, said Sturtevant, 36. "Out here on the Eastern Shore, at least anecdotally, there has been expressed a strong need for a coed day high school. The enrollment is exceeding our expectations, and we've been selective in the process."

The closest nonpublic coed high school is SS. Peter and Paul in Easton, about 20 miles south. Many of the boys graduating from two independent elementary-middle schools in the area attend boarding high schools or commute to private schools in Annapolis or Dover, Del., he said.

The community and even alumnae -- usually the hardest group to sell on change -- have been supportive. Sturtevant said he has received only "a couple of nasty letters" from unhappy graduates.

Rhonda Sisk, president of the alumni council, said Gunston alumnae she talked with "were a little bit misty-eyed" about the changes but now consider it one more stage of the tenacious school's evolution.

"I think a lot of people recognize what the situation is, that there's nothing here and this is a great opportunity," said Shoemaker, retired headmistress of the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, Pa., and an advocate of single-gender education.

The new Gunston will have about 70 students in four grades -- 50 day students and 20 remaining boarders, most of whom are seniors. About 10 percent of last year's students were "counseled out," Sturtevant said, because they were considered unable to adjust to the new curriculum.

The freshman class will be the largest, with almost 30 students -- all day students. The senior class will have 19 girls and two boys, who are transferring from boarding schools to the closer-to-home day school.

Gunston will have a larger enrollment this year than it did last, when the student body slipped below 60 and the senior class numbered 17, Sturtevant said. By 2000, the school expects to have 200 students and to have phased out its boarding program.

The changes are a move back to the past for Gunston. The school, founded in 1911 by Samuel and Mary Middleton at their Corsica River estate, admitted both boys and girls until the 1940s. The first students were the Middletons' children and those of friends and neighbors.

After Mr. Middleton died in 1929, his wife continued as headmistress until 1964, when "Aunt Mary," as she was affectionately known, retired at age 85. During World War II, the school became an all-girls institution with day and boarding students -- although day students, by design, have made up only about 10 percent of the student body.

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