Small private school a `hidden treasure'

Education: Trinity's pupils are schooled in academic subjects and traditional values, which parents favor.

April 17, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

On the year's hottest day so far, boys with rolled-up sleeves and girls with rolled-down knee socks trekked across the campus of Trinity School, taking in during one walking tour -- simultaneously -- the past, present and future of Howard County's oldest private school.

Trinity, in Ellicott City, celebrated its 60th anniversary yesterday, but there has been a school on the property since 1912. And if those who love it have anything to say about it, the school will have an even longer future.

"It's a Howard County landmark and a hidden treasure," said Alice Powell, a parent of two Trinity students and a school spokeswoman. "And we're becoming even more well-known."

The wooded land the school occupies off Ilchester Road was granted to a farmer by Lord Baltimore in 1732. Over time, several families lived on the property until the Donaldson School for boys moved there from Baltimore in 1912.

The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur purchased the 180 acres and original buildings from the school for $40,000 in 1934.

Surrounded by woods, nuns trained and lived there. In 1941, they opened their first elementary school, the Julie Billiart Country Day School.

Now called Trinity, the school is four cottage-like buildings with an enrollment of 390 pupils in kindergarten through eighth grade.

In the years since, the 180 acres have been whittled to 48, and the children attending the school have been squeezing into crowded rooms meant for much more intimate class sizes.

Today, the school is no longer owned by the nuns and the convent is gone.

In its place, a 10-classroom middle school is being built, with a science lab, computer and media rooms and an observatory. Over the next two to three years, the entire campus will be upgraded and renovated.

School leaders are proud of the advances being made after nearly 15 years of planning. But they're even prouder that not much is really changing.

Architects made sure that the new middle school would look every bit like the old one, which will be renovated and used for other purposes. The brickwork is painstaking, Powell said, including stone rosettes above carefully measured archways.

It's not just the brick and cottage-like aesthetics that will remain consistent with the school's original design, said Gil Van Schoor, trustee and chairman of the school's capital campaign.

"This is a family-oriented community school," he said. "And that's what it's going to be. We're not looking to build an elitist school. We want the school to be real world. We're not looking to build a country club. That's why you won't see a pool or a riding club. We put the money into the academic program."

Although the school is building, the academics at Trinity won't change, said Principal Frangiska Lewis, a former Trinity parent and teacher.

Trinity was named a Blue Ribbon School in the 1998-99 school year, one of 45 private elementary schools granted that honor by the U.S. Department of Education.

It has twice been granted the department's exemplary school award. Children have to meet a certain standard to get in, and most go on to renowned high schools and colleges.

That's why officials are committed to a pupil-teacher ratio of 20-to-1 and won't increase enrollment, even as Howard County parents plead to have children admitted.

"People get on the waiting list when their children are born," said Nina Sinnott. "When my son was about 6 months old, my husband said we should go down and get him on the waiting list. I thought he was crazy. We got over here and there was already a waiting list for his kindergarten class."

In addition to the high academic standards, parents clamor for the tucked-away traditions the school offers -- uniforms and daily prayer, to name a few.

Also, the school unabashedly teaches the morals and values parents say are so necessary these days.

Sinnott and other parents, such as Van Schoor, say their children are well-mannered, polite, honest and caring -- traits they could only hope were being encouraged in public schools.

"Friendships develop here that last a lifetime," Lewis said.

"There's definitely a family environment, very nurturing, and even as a child I picked up on that," said Trinity alumna Emily Wilkinson who came back after college graduation to teach music."

That nurturing will never change, said Sister Catherine Phelps, SND, the school president. It's what's propelling the school into the future, she said.

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