'We're not in a rush' Preschool: Cedarcroft, a 50-year-old private school, is ruled by manners, fun and, the founder says, 'the creativity of play.'

March 24, 1997|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

Edith Gentry insists she changes nothing for the sake of change.

That's for sure.

Freshly graduated from college in 1947, she started the Cedarcroft School in North Baltimore with money borrowed from her accountant father. A half-century later at 72, she's still the headmistress, and little has changed at the preschool for children 3 to 6.

The 70 youngsters and their nine teachers still gather at 9: 15 a.m. for opening exercises heavily flavored with patriotism. Gentry sits at the piano, accompanying the children in "America" and "Three Cheers for the Red, White and Blue" as a color guard of tots circles the room bearing American, Maryland and school flags.

The Pledge of Allegiance is rendered, with "God bless our president" added for good measure. Students recite a poem they've been memorizing for a few days. Good performers get applause, excellent performers a "hip-hip hurrah."

Manners are stressed. Children stand when they're called on. If they fail to look the headmistress in the eye when she greets them each morning, Gentry waits patiently until they do.

Gentry's been starting school this way over a span in which she says she's missed 10 days. The three-page 1997 Cedarcroft brochure is the same one she drew up in 1947 (except Spanish has replaced French as the language in which students receive "orientation").

There's no board of trustees. "I'm it," says Gentry, a tall woman with her graying hair in a bun. And though Cedarcroft is well-known among private schools in Baltimore, its name is hardly recognized in wider circles. Gentry has never spent a dime in advertising.

"I taught for 15 years before I moved to my current job," says Deborah Shawen, director of admissions at Gilman's lower school. "A lot of boys came over from Cedarcroft, and I swear you could almost pick them out. They were prepared academically, but they also had great work habits and manners."

Gentry was Edith Shallenberger when she founded Cedarcroft in the west wing of the Church of the Nativity, at Cedarcroft and York roads just south of the city-county line, where it remains.

In its first years, the school served mainly the children of McCormick & Co. Inc. executives. Today, the majority of parents are lawyers and doctors who pay tuition of a bit more than $3,000.

Unusual enough that an unmarried woman just graduated from the College of Notre Dame of Maryland would launch a school. But this one was radical for its time; it stressed phonics for teaching reading when the national fad was the "look-say" method embodied in the wildly popular Dick and Jane readers.

"We were called a European school," Gentry remembers, "because we put such a stress on manners."

Television, of course, was in its infancy and computers unheard of as educational tools. Gentry says she resisted personal computers "for decades," but the school, bowing to the times, now has a few PCs.

It's also lacking in textbooks. Its classrooms, which resemble grandma's attic, are filled with storybooks, poetry and artwork. There's ample opportunity for play, too; Gentry feels modern children don't get enough chance to play unfettered by the competitive urges of their parents.

"It's disgusting that kids are carted off to Little League sports at 5 and go to computer camp before they're old enough for school," she declares.

"Kids shouldn't go to computer camp in the summer. They should roll in the dirt. They should be outside enjoying nature. We've lost the creativity of play."

Nothing is rushed at this school, either. All 3-year-olds fashion a winter bird in woodworking; they don't do the carving, but they choose the bird and do the sanding, painting and mounting. They also get as much time as it takes to complete the job.

"We're not in a rush here," says the headmistress. "We leave that to the parents."

Now into her third generation of Cedarcroft kids, Gentry has a raft of stories, which she tells with hearty laughter. She chooses the smallest 3-year-old to play the Christ child in the school's Christmas Nativity play (which parents are required to attend).

"It's always touch-and-go," she says, "how long the Christ child will lie without starting to twitch."

Gentry calls the educational style at Cedarcroft "elastic." It's based on the philosophy that every child learns differently.

"We should always teach kids that it's all right to make mistakes," says Gentry. "Surely we shouldn't punish them for it. I don't believe in rules for control, only for safety."

Students will never know the pleasure of learning, Gentry says, if they're punished for being "wrong." Nor does she believe in testing young children.

Says Tricia O'Neill, a University of Maryland law professor who chose Cedarcroft from among a dozen preschools she visited: "The place just makes my heart beat faster." Her daughter Kylie, she says, "needed a place where she could grow emotionally. She's done that here."

Edith Shallenberger eventually married a doctor, William Gentry, and raised a family of her own. A daughter, Galvin Gentry, teaches at Cedarcroft and waits in the wings for her mother to retire.

"My husband retired nine years ago," Edith Gentry says, "but I'm not ready. This is the greatest job a person could ever have. Leaving it will be the hardest thing I'll ever have to do."

The number to call for information on Cedarcroft School's 50th anniversary celebration is 410-435-0905.

Pub Date: 3/24/97

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