A cause for elation and sadness: private schools

March 26, 2000|By Susan Reimer

A century ago, Gunston Day School was a working farm on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Perched by the Corsica River, where a two-masted schooner once docked to load tomatoes for the market in Baltimore, it is a patched-together collection of old and new: A stately manor house sits next to a new fieldhouse. Nothing quite matches, and you can see the seams in its pay-as-you-go expansion.

Indeed, Gunston has expanded. Philadelphian Samuel Atherton Middleton and his wife, Mary Robertson Middleton, daughter of a Baltimore judge, opened their 20-room home, and their ambitious home-schooling program, to the children of friends, and by 1921 there were 18 boys and girls living there.

Some stayed for as long as eight years in an atmosphere that was said to resemble an English country home. The emphasis was on riding, fox-hunting and shooting instruction, as well as the social graces and a strict drilling in the Edwardian code of behavior. But the students were also well grounded in composition, French, history and mathematics, art and music. The perfect education for the ruling class.

Gunston became a girls boarding school in 1952 and continued in that tradition, with about 85 girls in its heyday, until four years ago when it became again a co-ed school for grades 9 through 12. The enrollment, all commuter kids now, immediately jumped from 53 to more than 100 and the fund-raising and building began in earnest. Even so, Gunston has only 25 or 30 children in each grade and an average class size of 12. But applications are flowing in, and the school may soon reach its capacity of 165 students.

The students at Gunston invited me to speak on a day set aside to celebrate books, and it was an easy request to grant. I crossed the Bay Bridge from my home in Annapolis, wound through picturesque Centreville and was there in a matter of minutes.

So, I discovered, were the children of my neighbors.

Gunston draws its students from the Eastern Shore, but many come from Anne Arundel County, making, as I did, the brief, pastoral commute.

The students were wonderful during my visit. Polite, well-spoken, engaged and engaging. I could tell something about their parents, too, because the new gymnasium was ambitiously decorated for a fund-raising event to be held that weekend.

When I left Gunston, the bright sunshine of an early spring day could not lighten my mood. I had left behind me the children who should have been my children's classmates. Gunston, and schools like it, represent the slow leak in the balloon of my children's public education that I am helpless to patch.

Private schooling is the biggest growth industry in Anne Arundel County. Every preschool or church day-care center seems to expand overnight to eight grades.

Though these schools house children with needs not met by public schools, the truth is they are largely populated with children whose parents do not want them to go to school with disruptive students. (Read: "poor children" or "black children" or "Hispanic children.")

My children's classmates -- the students who would enrich their lives and energize their teachers -- and the energetic parents who would toil beside me on the volunteer front, are running for the exits of public schools in my county, and I bet in yours, too.

And visiting a school like Gunston leaves me weighted down with grief.

Pub Date: 03/26/00

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