Little School Fills A Niche

Ruxton: Small Classes Are The Hallmark Of The Low-key Private School, Which Is Thriving At Its New Campus In Owings Mills.

April 22, 1997|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

At Ruxton Country School, amid the evergreens and rail-fenced fields of its Owings Mills campus, administrators are working to erase an image they say the quiet private school never wanted or earned.

Founded as The Blue Bird School in suburban Ruxton in 1913, the 200-student school offers classes of 12 or 15, with teachers tolerant -- even accepting -- of students with what its mission statement calls "mild learning differences."

Some students are hyperactive enough to require medication. Some have problems understanding what they hear and must be given directions repeatedly.

But parents and administrators stress that the school, enjoying a growth spurt since moving from Ruxton in 1993, does not serve youngsters with special education or therapeutic needs.

They say that many of the students, who are average to gifted in their abilities, simply prefer or thrive in the low-key atmosphere that Ruxton fosters.

"If you have a kid who is a little bit on the shy side and you think he's going to have such a tough time, Ruxton is the perfect place," said Lynn Norwitz, president of the school's parents' association.

"Ruxton has always taken children with learning differences, and they still do. But we did not feel we were in a special school. Ruxton just fills a niche for a lot of kids -- children who would do better in a smaller classroom."

The school has strong academics, said Norwitz, who has a son at Ruxton and two children in public schools. Its graduates go on to a number of area private and public high schools and some to boarding schools, said Judith Banker-Barrett, the Ruxton headmistress for 20 years.

Small classes are a key feature of the school, which has 37 teachers and staff members. First- and second-grade classes have 12 to 14 students, and third- through eighth-grade classes a maximum of 16.

"We won't overcrowd a classroom -- and parents love it," said Banker-Barrett.

The philosophy of small, comfortable groups has guided the school since Swiss teacher Therese Waelichili opened The Blue Bird School as an alternative to traditional classrooms.

The school also stresses hands-on instruction that works with a variety of learning styles. Take Joanne Chapline's second-grade room, where on a recent day 12 students were engaged in a range of reading activities.

Some used traditional phonics workbooks. Some finished book reports structured around specific questions. Others read aloud in a group, and a few hunched over word cards on the floor, categorizing words according to the ending sounds.

In the middle school, particularly, organization and study skills are embedded in the curriculum.

In Charles Marquardt's eighth-grade classroom, where students had seen a video the day before about life in China, they were reading an excerpt from the script and later would write a review of the film, "Iron & Silk."

Like most private schools, Ruxton is growing. The school has added nearly 70 students since moving from Ruxton, said the headmistress.

Enrollment is almost evenly divided between the elementary and middle schools. Originally, all students were in one building, but it wasn't long before the middle-schoolers moved to a modular building across from the new school.

Next year, the school will add one or two kindergarten classes and expects to be near full enrollment of about 225, said Anne Bresee, director of admissions.

"They are really trying to grow and expand," added Norwitz. "I think there's a real need for them to be a high school." She was hoping a high school would be open in time for her sixth-grade son to attend.

But that does not seem likely -- the school has an endowment of only $30,000. And despite tuition that ranges from $7,900 to $9,000, "still we're operating on a shoestring," said Banker-Barrett.

"Things haven't come easy for us. But it's fun to see the things that have happened."

Pub Date: 4/22/97

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