Private schools focus on expansion

Parents say individualized pace, small class sizes make facilities attractive

March 20, 2005|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Howard County may be best known for its highly ranked public school system, but it is also home to a thriving collection of private schools.

The county has more than 30 nonpublic schools offering education from kindergarten onward. Several are expanding to meet the demands of a growing population, boosting their enrollments and opening new gymnasiums, science labs and classrooms.

Parents' reasons for choosing private school are as varied as the schools. Some are concerned about a particular public school, but most say they want something they can't find elsewhere: smaller classes, instruction in religion, full-day kindergarten, a certain educational philosophy or more individualized instruction for children who learn differently.

Mona Shroff considered public school for her children but opted for Love of Learning Montessori School in Columbia. "What intrigued me was the `learn at your own pace' philosophy, and that it's such a positive environment," she said. "The language teachers use is never `No, that's wrong.' It's `Let's try it this way.' That makes a difference to a child."

Unlike public schools, which admit all who live within their district borders, private schools have admissions procedures that might include an application, entrance testing, an interview with the student or parents and submission of transcripts and teacher recommendations.

Tuition varies by school and grade, and financial aid is offered at some schools. An informal survey of selected schools found tuition ranging from $4,400 to almost $17,000 per academic year.

Howard County has nine schools that are based upon the educational philosophy developed by Maria Montessori a century ago.

Love of Learning Montessori has 190 children from infancy through third grade at its school off Route 108. Founded in 1983, the school emphasizes learning at one's own pace and individualized instruction, said director Awilda Torres.

Unlike at a traditional school, where pupils are segregated by age or grade level, children in different grades learn together in the same classroom. Children ages 3 to 6 are grouped into classes in the primary program, which includes kindergarten. Children in first through third grades make up a "lower elementary" class. This fall, the school plans to add its first "upper elementary" class for up to 15 children in fourth through sixth grades.

"The children are moving at their own pace. The older ones are the role models for the younger ones," Torres explained.

Children who learn at a faster pace than their classmates may move ahead in their studies. "They don't have to wait for everyone else," Torres said.

Similarly, a child who needs more time on a lesson can take it. "It allows the child to internalize and learn whatever he has to learn without the pressure of moving on with the rest of the class," she said.

While their pace may differ, children should be "self-motivated" in this environment, she said. "If you want to work at your own pace, you have to be independent," Torres said.

Shroff, who has a second-grader and preschooler at the school, said she appreciates the focus on self-discipline.

"The teachers are teaching the children to discipline themselves," she said. "The children are taught to speak respectfully and in a peaceful way. These words are part of my son's vocabulary, and he's 4. He will say, `So-and-so wasn't speaking peacefully to me,' " she said.

Torres said some parents of children who leave for public school have re-enrolled their children in Love of Learning. "They find that the child is held back by discipline problems in the public school," she said. "They are not challenged."

Several other private schools are adding grades and boosting enrollment.

Glenelg Country School completed a $13 million expansion of its high school facilities in January.

The coed, college-preparatory school is on 87 acres in a rural section of the county, outside Ellicott City. It was founded in 1954 in a manor-type house, part of which dates to the 1700s. The school has 768 students in prekindergarten through 12th grade.

The expansion project follows a growth in middle-school enrollment, said Headmaster Ryland O. Chapman III. High school enrollment will rise from 240 to 300 over the next few years.

The addition doubles the academic space available and includes a new gym, five new science labs, two computer rooms and more classroom and library space, Chapman said.

"This gym is marvelous, with two full basketball courts, a weight room, fitness centers and a training room that we didn't have before," he said.

The high school is attracting more attention. "Every year, we have a lot of interest in the ninth grade," he said. "It seems like the number of applications from the outside is growing."

Almost 100 percent of the graduating students go on to college, with 85 percent gaining acceptance to their first-choice school, he said.

Among county public school students, 88 percent of the Class of 2004 enrolled in two- or four-year colleges.

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