Reformer finds new role Director: Lawyer who handled the city schools suit for the ACLU now runs the cooperative GreenMount School.

August 25, 1998|By Paula Lavigne | Paula Lavigne,SUN STAFF

It's 5 p.m., and Malissa Ruffner sets aside files at GreenMount School and darts out to collect her children from soccer practice.

The director -- one of six mothers who founded the private school in Wyman Park -- takes pride in being a soccer mom. After all, parents' involvement with children is the keystone of the cooperative that developed the school, she said.

When GreenMount opens Sept. 2 to its largest enrollment -- 65 pupils -- Ruffner will work to maintain the parent cooperative and provide the quality education she fought for as an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

As an attorney with the ACLU since 1992, Ruffner helped a group of parents sue the state for more funding for city schools and guided the school reform law that resulted from the settlement.

Last year, four years after GreenMount was started, Ruffner left the ACLU when she believed the settlement could move on without her. She became the paid director in January, when the school was getting too big to be run by a board and committees, she said.

As a member of the board, she said she was willing to step forward to be the contact person, the organizer, the collaborator, the "principal" -- someone who could handle the day-to-day problems and leave the strategy and goal planning to the board.

"In the early years, we just pitched in and did everything from the curriculum to fund-raisers," she said. "Our board meetings were six-hour marathons."

After the school was approved by the Maryland State Board of Education in 1993, it opened with 26 students and a mission to provide individual, hands-on education that stressed civic responsibility and fostered a child's desire to learn in a small class setting.

Virginia Cieslicki, chief of the Nonpublic School Approval Branch with the State Department of Education, said 64 schools in Maryland are operated by cooperatives. Most are nursery schools, she said, but two -- including GreenMount -- operate through eighth grade.

In five years, enrollment at GreenMount has almost tripled, class offerings have expanded to the seventh and eighth grades, and the school was moved last year from a few rooms in the basement of a Waverly church to Wyman Park Center -- multipurpose community center with a gym, kitchen, patios and room for classrooms, a library, offices and a garden -- at 501 W. 30th St.

Head Teacher Becky Thomson, who also was one of the founding mothers, said, "GreenMount is not the best place or the right place for every single kid or family, but it's been successful for kids with moderate disabilities and can provide lots of support for a child's education."

For some children, she said, it might ease the transition to a public high school.

As part of the parent cooperative, parents are required to volunteer time at the school or they can "buy out" of the volunteer time for $250 added to the $2,900 annual tuition. With 50 families, someone was needed to coordinate volunteer time.

"A lot of people said, 'I don't know who to ask,' " Ruffner said. "There was a vacuum of information going on."

Grace E. Hulse, a part-time teacher at the school, and her husband, Stephen V. Hulse, co-president of the board of directors, agreed that Ruffner could serve as director without the school losing its volunteer base.

"She forms a consensus without standing on a podium saying, 'This is what we have to do,' bam, bam, bam," Stephen Hulse said.

"It just helps to have someone who has an overall view of things and can see all sides of what's going on and advise people what to do," Grace Hulse said.

Ruffner said her legal problem-solving skills might help her at GreenMount, where she needs to be "efficient, not overwhelming."

The Aliquippa, Pa., native received a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Goucher College in 1977 and a law degree from the University of Maryland in 1985.

She and her husband, John Odell, 44, an electrical engineer, live in the Beverly Hills section of Northeast Baltimore and have two children. Clare, 11, will be a sixth-grader at GreenMount, and Elise, 14, graduated from GreenMount and will attend Baltimore City College this fall.

Although Ruffner works amid a summertime clutter of books and boxes, board members and teachers praise her meticulous organization.

She is a self-proclaimed list maker. Cleaning chores are scribbled on dry-erase boards and chalkboards in each classroom. She writes her tasks in a black notebook she "just can't loose." Pages for this week reveal lists of calls about contracts or maintenance, teacher interviews, meetings -- soccer practice -- and it's not even a school day.

Martha Morningstar-Belz, co-president of GreenMount's board of directors, said she's always admired Ruffner for "being really together."

Ruffner's leadership makes the school appear more legitimate, Morningstar-Belz said, because the teachers and parents have a central place to go for information and the board can move from administration to planning.

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