Private schools thrive in Howard County

Draws include family-like atmosphere, religious focus and attention to special needs


For parent Anita Smith, Howard County's top-ranked public school system could not compete with what she found at Trinity School: Catholic instruction, a caring community and freedom from redistricting worries.

"It's a beautiful, serene campus, and you walk there and feel protected. There probably isn't a teacher I don't know or a parent I don't say `hi' to. You feel like everyone cares," said Smith, who has two children at the school.

She is among thousands of parents who send children to about three dozen nonpublic schools in Howard County. Enrollment in private schools in the county has risen 17 percent since 2000, according to state statistics, and some schools have waiting lists.

Parents choose private schools for many reasons. Some are concerned about crowding, redistricting or perceived problems at some public schools. Others are attracted to private schools because of a familylike environment, religious teaching, small classes, special programs or individual instruction for children who learn differently.

At Trinity School in Ellicott City, administrators have a years-long waiting list for kindergarten, though they encourage new applications.

Trinity is an independent Catholic elementary and middle school on 48 acres. On a recent day, middle school pupils - girls in jumpers and boys wearing ties - quietly worked on an assignment on miracles in religion class as the teacher's notes were projected on a television screen. In the cottagelike buildings of the elementary school, four fourth-graders intently studied the beliefs of Eastern woodlands Indians.

At Trinity, foreign language instruction begins in kindergarten, and pupils will have taken both Spanish and French by fourth grade.

Twice a winner of a Blue Ribbon Award, which recognizes educational excellence, Trinity has about 380 children in kindergarten through eighth grade. Seventy-five percent are Catholic and 22 percent are minorities, according to Principal Frangiska Lewis.

Unlike a parochial school, which is affiliated with a parish, Trinity is sponsored by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. Its independent status gives it greater flexibility in choosing academic resources, said Sister Catherine Phelps, the school president.

When asked why he chose Trinity, Kevin Shearer of Ellicott City, parent of a fourth-grader, said the major draw was being part of a familylike community that teaches Catholic values. "In the community," he said, "there is a responsibility to show respect and care for each other."

When two pupils lost their parents, Shearer said, his son wanted to attend the services even though he was not close friends with the children. "He said, `They're like my brothers and sisters because we all go to school together.'"

A "familylike environment" drew Fran Hock to another Christian school, St. John's Parish Day School in Ellicott City. The school has 165 pupils in kindergarten through fourth grade on the grounds of St. John's Episcopal Church, which also has a preschool.

Hock said she appreciates the chapel time at school. "It's a time when they can talk about self-respect and self-discipline," said the parent of a second-grader and a preschooler.

Her family's choice of St. John's also frees her from the "constant redistricting shuffle" by the public school system. With St. John's, "I know my kids will go there as long as we want them to," said Hock, of Ellicott City.

Next year, St. John's will have almost 200 pupils as it completes a years-long expansion by adding a fifth grade, said Christine Franey, head of the Lower School. St. John's will increase enrollment gradually until fall 2008, when it will have two classes at each grade level in kindergarten through fifth grade.

With more public schools switching from half-day to full-day kindergarten, St. John's has seen interest drop in its half-day classes, Franey said. Next fall, the school will offer full-day kindergarten only.

Overall, demand is strong. "We have had record numbers of kindergarten applications," as well as increased applications for other grades, she said.

Some of the demand is fueled by a decision by the Young School to close its first through fifth grades at the end of this academic year.

Enrollment had declined by about 2 percent a year, said Mary Anne Carlson, marketing and public relations director for the Young School, an independent school in Columbia. "Every year, it was getting more and more difficult to get that number."

Carlson said several trends are squeezing private elementaries.

"Home schooling has had a huge impact on us," she said, as parents who want an alternative to public school find it a preferable and less expensive option to private schools. She said another trend is the push for charter schools, publicly funded schools run outside the traditional school system hierarchy.

The Young School will continue to serve more than 600 children from infancy through kindergarten at four locations, she said.

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