Taking charge of education

Man's vision, funding back Carroll school

October 27, 2001|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

When Frederick G. Smith sat his young patients in the dentist chair during his decade in private practice, he asked questions. Lots of questions.

Intending to relax the patients - many of whom attended Baltimore's leading high schools and colleges - the oral surgeon inquired about school, favorite subjects, goals in life. Ever curious, Smith also asked specific questions about government and history like "How do you change a law?"

Their answers surprised him.

"Not one kid out of 6,000 had any idea how to lobby government to change a law," Smith recalls, still sounding incredulous more than a dozen years later. "These kids of the current generation are very intelligent and very stimulated, but the problem is there are these fundamental bits of information every citizen should know ... and they don't have a grasp for that."

Sensing what he called an "unfortunate ineptitude" in education, the 52-year-old father of three decided to build a school where students would learn basics like English and math as well as "fundamental knowledge" - how government works, how to draw up a business plan and how to be a leader. He wants to teach adolescent psychology to adolescents to improve their self-esteem, and introduce world religions, and ethnicity and race issues to first-graders so they'll learn about diversity.

Smith is realizing his vision on a former hog farm north of Finksburg that overlooks Route 140. There, the vice president of the Hunt Valley-based media company Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. is spending $16 million to build the private, coeducational Gerstell Academy.

Located two miles over the Baltimore County line, down the street from the Todd Village RV park and a gourmet restaurant that serves lobster in champagne sauce, Gerstell's 96-acre site is simultaneously rural and suburban. More than 40,000 cars per day drive by the school's construction site en route to Westminster and Baltimore, but on campus the view is mostly corn fields and trees, with a sprinkling of houses.

Dressed in a green nylon flight jacket and a navy Gerstell baseball cap proclaiming "Follow a leader" on the back, Smith drove over the muddy reddish-brown hills of the campus one recent afternoon, outlining his plans for the independent school, which he said will eventually have more than 600 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. The plans extend 100 years so the school can grow and expand with ease, he explained.

"The baseball diamond will go over there," Smith said, pointing to a flat expanse of dirt in the center of the campus that was virtually indistinguishable from much of the property. "A softball field goes there," he said, pointing to another dirt pile.

Several minutes later, as his silver Toyota sport utility vehicle bumped over a rocky mound a few hundred yards from the foundation of the 57,000-square-foot Georgian-style main school building under construction, Smith stopped and pronounced, "And this is where we would put a full stadium. Someday."

He smiled. "You've got to think ahead."

Enrollment on rise

Enrollment at the 1,290 nonpublic schools in Maryland is growing, according to the Maryland Department of Education. Fueled by a baby boomlet that is also affecting public schools, nonpublic school enrollment in the state grew 35 percent, from 139,047 students in 1991 to 187,100 students last year. During that period, 530 nonpublic schools opened.

Smith, who lives in Lutherville, is a third-generation graduate of Boys' Latin School, which two of his sons attend. He and his family also contribute to the school. In 1998, Smith's brother, David D. Smith, gave Boys' Latin $5 million - the school's largest single gift to date. Another brother, J. Duncan Smith, donated $4 million to Boys' Latin for a new middle school.

Asked whether his school is meant to compete with Boys' Latin, Frederick Smith smiled. "They just accept boys," he said. "We accept boys and girls."

The school will be the first school of its kind in Carroll. Set to open next fall with kindergarten and pre-first-grade students, the school plans to open its lower and middle school in fall of 2003.

Gerstell, he said, is an old family name.

Smith's vision coupled with his experience in business drive the project. Because he has been working with a core staff of experienced educators, some of whom have worked for years in Baltimore-area private schools, he is confident that Gerstell will be a success.

"In business if you want to accomplish a goal you have to set a strategy to achieve that goal," Smith said. "Education is the same thing."

John A. Polasko taught math at the Gilman School in Roland Park for eight years before becoming head of Gerstell's middle school. He views Smith's business experience as an asset.

"Here's someone who has been successful in other areas who does things he says he's going to do," said Polasko, who met Smith in 1999 when he tutored Smith's sons in math. "That makes it easier to see this ambitious project and say, "Yeah. I think I can do that.'"

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