Where past is revered

Changes: As Calvert School gets set for expansion, it holds tight to tradition and history.

May 31, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

First thing every morning in the Calvert School, Head Master Merrill S. Hall III shakes hands with each arriving pupil, his smile sometimes accompanied by a gentle but firm reminder to take off a hat, tuck in a shirt or add "Mr. Hall" to the child's greeting.

Instilling social graces is part of the culture at the North Baltimore school, with how to write thank-you notes, or "friendly letters," a subject for 10-year-old boys and girls. Curtsies used to go with the handshake for girls and were only dispensed with in 1990.

"Calvert changes, but slowly," said Muriel V. Berkeley, vice president of the board of trustees, who sent her three daughters there.

Even as century-old Calvert prepares to enter an era of expansion, the school holds its past dear. The middle school being planned across Tuscany Road will carry on traditions, which include a rigorous academic program and attention to the finer points of behavior.

The decision to add seventh and eighth grades put Calvert at odds with its neighbors, particularly residents of the apartments at 4300 N. Charles St., which was acquired and will be torn down to make way for the middle school and playing fields. A school year of turmoil and political skirmishes ensued, which made Calvert's image a popular conversational topic.

As Calvert prepares for graduation exercises tomorrow in its gymnasium, it's ready to move forward. While still engaged in talks with the Tuscany-Canterbury Neighborhood Association, the school recently silenced opposition from 4300 N. Charles residents by offering financial compensation to move.

Educational and economic considerations compelled officials to press ahead with long-considered plans to add the extra grades, which will add 100 to 200 boys and girls to the student body of 364.

Calvert pupils once were virtually assured of places at Gilman, Bryn Mawr and Roland Park Country schools. But in recent years, Hall and Berkeley said, it became clear some were leaving the school early to be assured of admission. Things were getting, as Hall put it, "out of sync."

"As gently as we [private schools] treat each other, it's a competitive market out there," Hall said.

Calvert leaders also were convinced by conversations with parents that there was a strong demand for more of the same philosophy applied to middle school, which can be a problematic time for young teens.

For the elementary pupils, Calvert's exacting system emphasizes rewriting an original composition until it's perfect and saving those papers, plus spelling and math tests, and neatly colored maps in bound monthly folders, rather than the more common daily drill of homework.

"A system of completed product is a regimen from the early 1900s," Hall said. "I maintain it's what makes Calvert students notable. A body of work is an amazing thing for a child of 7 to have, and I think it gives a child self-esteem."

Every Calvert pupil also studies French and, beginning at age 7 -- or "7th Age" as they say at the school -- handwriting. The result, as seen in the names inscribed on prominent class plaques, is remarkably similar signatures.

"You can't believe how important it is," said Jane Harlan, assistant to the headmaster.

Calvert's reputation extends around the world to 17,000 pupils enrolled in its home instruction department and to the Barclay School in Baltimore, which adopted the Calvert curriculum a decade ago.

Barclay Principal David S. Clapp, 32, a third-generation Calvert graduate, was on the committee that defined the middle school core mission. Clapp, more than anyone, could draw on his educational experience of how well Calvert's curriculum works at a public school like Barclay, which offers kindergarten through eighth grade -- and where the principal greets each child with a handshake.

Clapp spoke with excitement about the "fresh slate" to design the building, which is to be added onto an old mansion Calvert acquired and might house grades five through eight.

He is living proof of the ties that bind Calvert alumni: "Out of my class of 25 boys, I keep in touch with 10 or 15 very regularly, more than high school or college. If I were going to have a wedding, 90 percent of my wedding would be from Calvert."

The school, which started on the second floor of a downtown drugstore, moved to its current address in 1924 as the city's wealthier residents built houses in northern neighborhoods. The last facility improvement was in 1984 when a wing was added.

Hall said Calvert expects to begin clearing the site for construction in early September and to offer the seventh grade beginning in fall 2002, with eighth grade to follow soon after.

When the middle school and fields are complete, Calvert's growth will be finished. After upsetting neighborhood tranquility in a way he said he didn't expect, Hall denied speculation that a high school is in the offing.

"That's not going to happen here," he said.

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