Private schools surge in Howard Parents abandoning public system despite its high test scores

March 17, 1997|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Mary Williams of Elkridge teaches in a public school and grew up attending public schools in Howard County. But -- as long as she has the money -- she will never, ever send her 7-year-old grandson Chapman Kittrell to a public school.

Even in Howard County? Especially in Howard.

Even though the county's public school system continues to rack up the state's highest test scores, parents are increasingly rejecting Howard's public schools in favor of private schools and schooling their children at home.

In the first half of this decade, private school enrollment among Howard students grew by almost 80 percent -- the fastest rate in the Baltimore area, according to state Education Department records. This far outpaced the statewide private school enrollment growth rate of about 20 percent.

Similarly, home schooling among Howard families is more common than anywhere else in the Baltimore area except for Harford County.

Howard's continuing population growth -- which led to a 36 percent increase in the total number of students in the county the first half of this decade -- only accounts for about half the surge in private school enrollment. The county's relative affluence also is a factor.

But experts, parents and administrators say Howard's movement away from the public schools is about more than that: a belief among a growing number of parents that the public schools no longer teach some key intangibles -- integrity, honesty, discipline, respect.

"They will be better human beings because they'll be taught the right values and behavior here," says Parinaz K. Irani, of Columbia, who has three children at the privately run Columbia Academy.

Adds Sarah Donnelly, director of the Association of Independent Maryland Schools: "People talk about the smaller class sizes at private schools, but that's always been there. Now people are deciding that we have something that's value-added."

Not that there isn't a great deal of appeal in the smaller classes at private schools and the belief that teachers have more time to meet students' needs.

For 10 years, Nina McDonough, a reading specialist, taught classes of 30 at a time in Howard's public schools. At Columbia's Love of Learning Montessori School, she works with only three students at a time.

"It is amazing what you can get done, amazing all the differences," she says. "I see the contrast. It has nothing to do with the quality of the teachers in public schools, but it's just that they're dealing with so many kids with so many needs. With those ratios, the teaching and discipline are so, so tough."

Adds Moira Larsen, a Columbia doctor whose sons attend Ruxton Country School in Owings Mills and Boys' Latin in Baltimore: "No matter how good the county school system is, it's hard to argue with 15 kids in a class."

The result is that last school year 7,367 of 46,224 total students in Howard attended private school -- up from 4,141 private students in the 1990-1991 school year.

At the McDonogh School in Owings Mills, enrollment from Howard County families has grown by almost 50 percent in the last three years, says Sharon Boston, the admissions director. Five buses, four of which are "absolutely full," bring Howard students to the school each day, she says.

Love of Learning Montessori plans to add more classrooms within the year to keep pace with its growth.

Glenelg Country School in Howard County, with 456 students, is adding a $4 million, 40,000-square-foot building that will house a gym and new middle school.

Even the Columbia Academy, which suffered from bad publicity last year after its owners filed for bankruptcy, has rebounded strongly in enrollment and plans to add classes next year.

Waiting lists -- or waiting pools, as some schools prefer to call them -- are sometimes bigger than schools' enrollments. At the Trinity School in Ellicott City, there is a five-year waiting list for kindergartners, says Sister Catherine Philips.

Howard County school officials counter that parents are choosing private schools for reasons that have little to do with the quality of the public schools -- for example, for religious reasons.

Patti Caplan, spokeswoman for Howard's public schools, adds that student-teacher ratios in the 39,000-student system remain low compared to other public school systems. Elementary school class sizes average about 25 pupils for most subjects.

"There are a lot of things private schools can't provide that we can," Caplan says. "All the specialized services -- they just can't do that because the cost can be prohibitive for small schools. So, there are some benefits to volume."

Conversely, there are benefits for private schools in not having to accept every student.

"We may take academic risks but try not to take behavior risks," says Ryland Chapman, headmaster at Glenelg. "Every year there are certain students we don't invite back due to academic and behavior problems."

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