A century of schoolgirls

Centennial: Roland Park Country School prepares to celebrate its 100th year of educating young women.

October 04, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

In Nancy Theobold Wehr's younger days, single-sex education for girls was just coming into vogue.

Women's colleges had cropped up all over the East, and private institutions such as Roland Park Country School were founded as proper places for the city's wealthier set in a new "country" suburb to prepare their daughters for the rigors of college.

Wehr was in the school's vanguard, enrolling at age 6. When Roland Park Country School celebrates its centennial with a parade Saturday, Wehr, 97, will be in the lead as the school's oldest living alumna.

Searching her school memories, she recalled "the funniest pleated bloomers that we wore for athletics," and being afraid of only one person: Miss Nanna Dushane, one of the school's first headmistresses.

Today, things are a little different. The pleated bloomers are gone, but the constant is single-sex education. With its neighbor, Bryn Mawr School, Roland Park Country School is considered one of the best places in Baltimore to grow a good mind.

"In contrast to media and society messages, in all-girls schools the focus is substantive -- what they're doing and thinking, not what they're wearing or how they look," said Whitney Ransome, co-executive director of the National Coalition of Girls' Schools in Concord, Mass.

Jean Brune, Roland Park Country's head of school, said the female community and cozy atmosphere equip girls with a stronger sense of self and leadership. It gives them what she calls the three C's -- competence, confidence and connectedness -- which they might not acquire in a coeducational environment.

Studies show that boys tend to dominate coed classrooms and that girls in general experience a drop in self-esteem about age 11. At the school -- which teaches kindergarten through 12th grade -- the girls appear buttressed from that threat.

"You leave here with a sense of who you are," said Brune, a Class of 1960 member whose mother and daughter are also alumnae. "Girls thrive on connecting. If a student is unhappy or happy, there are 10 girls around her."

Members of the Class of 2002, clad in the traditional uniform of blue skirts and white shirts, listen to music in the Senior Room, where no adults are allowed.

Between classes, they seem carefree. Ask about the confessional poetry or the senior speech they just wrote, however, and a serious side emerges.

Student Government President Parissa Jahromi, 17, said in a speech to the upper school last week that there's only so much friends can do for each other: "I naively thought that if I only cared enough, listened enough and gave enough of myself, I could save my friends from unhappiness, depression, or that I could solve their problems."

A poem of hers refers to fears that the recent terrorist attacks might give rise to a hate campaign against Arab-Americans. Upon hearing a racial slur, she wrote, "Jane hides behind a smile instead/and pretends she didn't hear."

The curriculum for the 71 members of the senior class reflects the darkness of the past century. Class President Edith Birney is studying the Holocaust and the literary legacies of world wars, such as the Virginia Woolf novel Mrs. Dalloway.

"Every leader, every star of a play, every athlete is a girl," Birney said. "You can do anything."

Juniors and seniors take some classes with upper-school students at Bryn Mawr and the all-male Gilman School. By that age, Brune said, the girls have learned to hold their own with boys.

The returning alumnae who did not experience coed coordination will remember the school's old building at 817 W. University Parkway. The Country School moved to its present grounds in the 5200 block of Roland Ave. in 1980.

Noted poet Adrienne Rich was a member of the Roland Park Country School Class of 1947. In the essay "Taking Women Students Seriously," published in her book On Lies, Secrets and Silence, she wrote of the school: "We were taken to libraries, art museums, lectures ... given extra French or Latin reading. ... In a kind of cognitive dissonance, we knew [faculty members] were `old maids' and therefore supposed to be bitter and lonely; yet we saw them vigorously involved with life."

Many of the school's graduates have stayed in Baltimore and remain friends with former classmates. Two of them, Courtney Jones McKeldin, Class of 1958, and Kathy Hudson, Class of 1967, contributed essays about the school to A Place in Our Hearts, a book commemorating the centennial.

Other centennial-related projects include a large laurel leaf sculpture designed by students displayed prominently on a school building. The school also is undergoing a $10 million expansion that has added several classrooms, science labs and a dining hall to the south side of the main building.

Wehr said it's been a pretty full century since her school days and the age of President Theodore Roosevelt and the Great Fire in Baltimore.

Her memories of singing opera as a young woman -- once with legendary tenor Enrico Caruso -- in New York and Baltimore burn brightly.

"I can't sing a note now, but I used to sing around town a lot and on the radio," she said in an interview at her Ruxton home, surrounded by her Aunt Agnes' gold curtains and portraits of ancestors.

Two of her great-granddaughters attend her old school.

As she made a scarecrow in her kindergarten class, Paris Roth, 5, spoke clearly on the merits of having all girls in class: "It's good because we don't get bothered [by boys]."

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