A hidden treasure in U.S. education

Preparation: America's oldest boarding school maintains its tradition of small classes and a close-knit community.

October 25, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

COLORA - Tucked away in the rolling farmland of Cecil County sits a little-known secondary school that holds a unique title in American education: the oldest boarding school in the United States.

Founded in 1744 by an Irish Presbyterian minister, West Nottingham Academy boasts a proud roster of alumni, including three former governors, two signers of the Declaration of Independence - Benjamin Rush and Richard Stockton - and well-known modern artist Eric Fischl.

"The timeline alone for the school is just incredible," says Peter Fender of Baltimore, a 1964 graduate and member of West Nottingham's board of trustees. "For a kid coming down from Long Island, the place was like a time-warp with all of this amazing history."

Though West Nottingham's small classes and individualized instruction have remained consistent through more than 250 years, the school is a far different place from those early days.

The school is no longer single-gender, teaching both boys and girls since 1895 (except for a 20-year period from 1934 to 1954).

A quarter of its students now come from foreign countries - so many that the school promotes its English instruction to non-native speakers. Another 25 percent of the students have mild learning disabilities and are enrolled in a tutoring program known as the Chesapeake Learning Center.

And the school's original $20 annual tuition - noted in an advertisement in the first day's edition of The Sun in 1837 - is now eclipsed by families paying more than $25,000 for students to study and live at West Nottingham.

"It's changed physically, but a lot of this place is almost the same as when it began," says Joe Ray, who has been teaching at the school since 1962 and is West Nottingham's historian. "The mission is the same as it always was: to prepare its graduates to go on to higher education and other great things."

For all of West Nottingham's history and tradition, most Marylanders have never seen its 180-acre campus, which includes an 1865 building still used for the school's drama productions and a house for the school's headmaster that dates to at least 1700.

If they recognize the school's name, it's most likely because they've spotted a brown Maryland Historical Site sign posted along Interstate 95 near the bridge over the Susquehanna River.

"I grew up in Cecil County, I graduated from Perryville High School, and I had never heard of West Nottingham," says John Kampes, the school's athletic director. "This place is just hidden, off on its own."

Since its founding by Samuel Finley - who went on to become president of Princeton University - West Nottingham has carved out its niche in the mid-Atlantic region as a college preparatory school that keeps its classes small enough for all students to succeed.

Enrollment is smaller than most boarding schools, with 170 students in grades six through 12. All 30 middle school pupils and about 35 high school students live at home and commute to school. The rest live on campus.

"I was in a public high school of 4,500 kids, and my smallest class was 47," says junior Bo Brunk, who grew up near Denver. "I got lost and totally screwed things up my freshman year, but when I came here I started doing so much better. Teachers paid attention to me and what I was doing."

In a physics class, retired 62-year-old engineer David Berkebile takes his 10 students through a two-month exercise about sports on the moon - looking at such issues as gravity, force and motion in hands-on activities.

One day, students swing pendulums of different lengths and masses, attempting to simulate how athletes might walk on the moon. "It's an interesting way to learn science," says junior Andrew Yanek, 16, of Hockessin, Del. "All we're doing is swinging something and timing it. It's like it isn't science."

Berkebile - who designed many of the wiring systems used on airplanes - says that's exactly the point. "These kids are learning physics and they don't even know it," he says. "The great thing is that I know every kid so well that I can be sure every one of them understands the concepts before I move on."

The school day at West Nottingham is busy. Breakfast is served from 6:45 a.m. to 7:30 a.m., and all teachers and students gather at 7:45 a.m. for a meeting. Classes run from 8 a.m. to about 2:30 p.m., with a half-hour or so for lunch.

In the afternoons, all students must play a sport or participate in an extracurricular activity such as drama. Two hours of supervised study hall follows dinner, and lights-out is usually between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m.

"You're kept so busy that you barely have time for anything else," says junior Barbara Jackson from Lewes, Del.

On weekends, boarding students with families in the region often go home, and those who stay can take school-organized trips to the movies, local malls, or Washington and New York City.

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