Earning the credit as school grows up

Retirement: Judith Banker-Barrett, who oversaw the growth of the Ruxton Country School, will retire as headmistress after 22 years.

May 08, 1999|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

In 1977, Judith Banker-Barrett answered a small newspaper ad for the headmistress position at the Blue Bird School. With only five years' teaching experience, she got the job running the tiny, 40-pupil school in a rambling house on Berwick Road in Ruxton.

"I was so naive -- and these wonderful people who hired me were so naive," recalled Banker-Barrett. "My leadership abilities were limited to being head of the reunion committee of my Goucher College class and leading a Girl Scout troop."

Over the past two decades, Banker-Barrett became comfortable in a position of authority at what is now Ruxton Country School, presiding over its growth to 215 pupils, the move to its Owings Mills campus and the expansion of the lower school to include a middle school.

With mixed emotions, Banker-Barrett is preparing to leave the school that has carved a niche for itself with its nurturing philosophy and attention to children's individual learning styles.

"It's time for someone else to step in," said Banker-Barrett, 63. "I'm ready to do something else, and I don't really know what."

Her planned departure is the most recent in a series of retirements of longtime heads of Baltimore private schools.

Last summer, W. Byron Forbush II retired after running Friends School for 38 years. In 1997, Hawley Rodgers retired after 21 years as headmaster of Oldfields. The same year, Sister Helen Marie Duffy stepped down after 18 years as headmistress at the Notre Dame Preparatory School and six decades at the school.

"She's the last of the Baltimore long-tenured," Sarah Donnelly, executive director of the Association of Independent Maryland Schools (AIMS), said of Banker-Barrett. "Given that the tenure of somebody in one school is six or seven years, they stand out in their longevity. And I don't know whether there will be another wave."

Colleagues and former pupils at Ruxton say they'll miss Banker-Barrett's warm, playful personality that has carried through the hallways and classrooms of the small private school.

"She's very low-key and a person who sort of envelops everyone when they come in," said Ann Bresee, Ruxton Country School's director of admissions. "With her will definitely go an era of a different kind of pace."

`Warm and open'

Josh Luxenberg, 15, a freshman at Baltimore School for the Arts who graduated from Ruxton last year, said he often stopped by Barrett's office to chat.

"She was very warm and open and welcoming to everybody who needed to talk," Luxenberg said. "She was fun to be around."

Banker-Barrett is the fourth headmistress of the school, founded in 1913 by Swiss teacher Therese Waelchi, who stressed a hands-on learning style. One of Banker-Barrett's first decisions, in 1978, was to change the school's name because, she said, Blue Bird School sounded like a nursery school.

Subsequent changes were not accomplished so easily.

Banker-Barrett raised salaries, improved the school building, rewrote the curriculum, hired a reading specialist and made sure the school joined AIMS and the National Association of Independent Schools.

`Old Mother Hubbard's Shoe'

Despite the changes, parents, teachers and pupils say, the school has retained its homelike feel, small classes and flexibility in accommodating each child's educational needs.

"Ruxton is a school that really works closely with kids who need that extra TLC," said Ed Nolley, whose daughter Tyson graduated from Ruxton last year. "The original school on Berwick Road was like Old Mother Hubbard's Shoe, with kids coming out of the windows and doors. It was like a second home, a wonderful, warm school."

Betsy Pritchard, president of the school's parent association, said her daughter was "falling through the cracks" in Cincinnati public schools before moving to Maryland.

"She needed an environment with small classes that catered to kids who took different amounts of time to learn things," she said.

Among the more visible of Banker-Barrett's accomplishments are the founding of a middle school in 1986 in Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church, and the move six years ago to a new $1.7 million building on a 30-acre Owings Mills campus.

The new facility consolidated the lower and middle schools and included features lacking in the old house on Berwick Road: a multipurpose room, a large library, central air conditioning, and art and science rooms.

The school's middle school enrollment surged after the move, and most of the middle schoolers are in a temporary modular building until a separate facility opens in three or four years. A pupil activity center is scheduled to open next year.

"The school has clearly grown up, and it's to her credit," Donnelly said.

Playful side

Although being a headmistress is a serious job, those who work with Banker-Barrett say she never forgets to make it fun.

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