Students drive to succeed Lifestyles: Families face more compromises as they seek a balance between quality of life and education.

October 12, 1997|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Deep in the woods where Coel Bliss lives, the nighttime darkness still hasn't lifted as he climbs into the Jeep. He yawns, turns on the radio and scrunches up his jacket to get comfortable for the long ride to Baltimore.

Past the horse farms and country store, he becomes part of the regular morning procession from the northernmost suburbs. But he isn't another weary, middle-aged commuter headed to work. He's a 10-year-old headed to school.

Across Maryland, more and more schoolchildren like Coel are spending longer and longer hours on the road each day commuting to private, religious and magnet public schools.

Their parents are dissatisfied with public education. Their families have moved to far-flung rural counties in search of affordable mortgages and a simpler lifestyle. They want to study art, music, science and technology.

The compromise: marathon drives and bus rides that are up to 2 1/2 times as long as the average 26-minute commute of workers in the Baltimore metropolitan area.

"People are making choices about where they think their children will be best taught," says Jean Brune, principal of Roland Park Country School, which draws students from as far as Bel Air, Taneytown and southeastern Pennsylvania.

"It doesn't have to be a neighborhood school anymore," Brune says. "It doesn't have to be on a bus line."

In Baltimore County, Gil Bliss and Becky Lister-Bliss built a timber-frame house near the Pennsylvania line where their son could hunt for turtles and eat squash from the garden. But they still wanted him to study with children from other cultures and to attend a Quaker school. So twice a day, in rush hour, Coel's mother chauffeurs him 55 minutes to and from Friends School in North Baltimore instead of the public school that's 10 minutes away.

"There have been mornings when I thought it would be so much handier if he walked to a little school a half-mile down the road," Lister-Bliss admits.

In Prince George's County, Nancy Wetzling, 46, went to a performance of her son's fourth-grade class and discovered he could barely read. She pulled him out of public school. Soon, she was devoting six hours a day driving him and his younger sister to Christian schools in Owings Mills and Howard County.

In Calvert County, Shawn Salta, 17, felt lost in his crowded high school, where the one-way halls were dubbed the "Calvert Beltway." He transferred to St. Mary's, a Catholic school in downtown Annapolis, even though it's 50 miles away.

"I used to roll out of bed and into school," Shawn says. "But two weeks into my junior year, I got sick of it. I didn't like the teachers. A lot of the kids were just freaks; they didn't apply themselves at all."

Still, Shawn acknowledges he is paying a price for his escape. He has sacrificed time he could spend at home with his family -- and a social life.

Like other long-distance student commuters, he gets annoyed and exhausted at times. He doesn't want to hang around Annapolis until 7: 30 p.m. for sporting events.

On weekends, the last thing he wants to do is get in a car, and his friends often don't want to drive 70 minutes to Prince Frederick, the small town where he lives.

"I've never been to a football game here," he says.

Private and parochial schools have always attracted children from outside their immediate area. But until recently, it was rare for students to travel great distances.

Now, Friends, Bryn Mawr, Gilman, Roland Park Country School and other private Baltimore schools draw 5 percent to 8 percent of their enrollments from towns about an hour away. So does Calvert Hall in Towson, and some religious schools in the region report even higher percentages. At Chapelgate Christian Academy, off Interstate 70 in Howard County, 12 percent of the 375 students come long distances.

Baltimore youths go to the Hebrew Academy of Greater Washington in Silver Spring. Meanwhile, Silver Spring, College Park and Rockville youths go to Chapelgate. Even within public school systems, youths who go to magnet schools often wind up making long bus treks.

To Mark Weist, a psychiatry professor at the University of Maryland who counsels schoolchildren in Baltimore, the marathon commutes reflect the increasingly hectic, scheduled pace of the '90s.

"We live in such a technological age, and there's so much pressure to perform, that we cope with it by living in a very scheduled fashion," he says. "Kids these days are very active, often in multiple sports, and they have very little unscheduled time."

In Baltimore, Tiffany Lindsey, 17, discovered even a cross-town trip can turn into an hourlong ordeal when you rely on public transportation.

At first, she felt grown-up as she left her home in Mount Washington, took the wheezing MTA bus across busy city streets to Reisterstown Plaza, then boarded the subway for the School for the Arts. A theater major, she would "chew gum, observe the people and get ideas for characters."

"Now," she says, "it's just a hassle."

57-mile commute

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