Baltimore Lab School strikes out on its own

Purchases Old Goucher Hall in south Charles Village

  • The Baltimore Lab School in Charles Village on March 20. The school, which serves children with learning disabilities, has purchased its building and is splitting from The Lab School of Washington.
The Baltimore Lab School in Charles Village on March 20. The… (Photo by Steve Ruark )
March 25, 2014|By Larry Perl, lperl@tribune.com

Doug and Gretchen Moran, owners of a home-based software company in California, said they can live wherever they want.

And what they want are good schools for their children, Jack, 5, and Isabel, 8 — especially Jack, who they say is both a special-needs and a gifted student, reading far above his grade level but hampered by Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Last week, the family toured the private Baltimore Lab School in the Old Goucher neighborhood in south Charles Village during an open house. The Morans were all ears as Head of School David Lightfoot asked them where people got food in the 1700s.

"Farms," said Isabel.

And where did they get milk?

"Cows," shouted Jack.

"We're not private school people fundamentally," said Gretchen Moran. "We support public schools."

But she too was all ears as Lightfoot and Greg Stewart, a board member and the parent of a Baltimore Lab graduate who is now in college, extolled the virtues of the school as an alternative for children in elementary through high school with learning disabilities.

These are halcyon days for Baltimore Lab School, 2220 St. Paul St., which until recently flew under the radar as a division of the much-older and better known Lab School of Washington. Since 2004, Baltimore Lab has been based in a building owned by the Washington school — Old Goucher Hall, once home to the now Towson-based Goucher College.

"It hasn't been an institution; it's been a division of a Washington institution," said John Magladery, president of the board of directors and the father of twin boys in the 11th grade.

Now, fulfilling a longstanding plan, Baltimore Lab is moving forward independently as a nontraditional urban school. The school has purchased the historic, 43,600-square-foot building for $1.47 million from the Lab School of Washington and has severed funding ties with the 46-year-old Washington school.

"It's completely two separate schools now," Lightfoot said.

"It's an exciting time," said Magladery.

A split from The Lab School of Washington was part of the original plan when the Baltimore school opened in 2000.

"The plan was, in 10 years Baltimore Lab should be strong enough to stand on its own two feet," Lightfoot said.

Officials now plan to raise the school's profile and grow enrollment, which has increased from 18 students in its first year to 100 in the first-through-12th grades now, with average class sizes of 4-1.

"I think, frankly, it was time," Magladery said. "The two cities are different. The marketplaces are different. And we're different from any Baltimore school."

Baltimore Lab is working on fostering more tutoring and educational partnerships, such as the ones with Johns Hopkins University, the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, aimed at giving students real-world experiences.

Lightfoot, 45, of Canton, a former art educator now in his third year as head of school, said he is reaching out to the surrounding communities and getting involved with the Old Goucher Community Association and other civic groups. He is also involved in the Greater Homewood Community Corp.'s block captain program as block captan for the 2200 block of St. Paul, where the school is located. He said the school also had a table at last year's Artscape festival.

"I'm really trying to ripple out," Lightfoot said.

Baltimore Lab's arts-based approach to education is immediately obvious, from its paint brush-and-palette sign outside the building to the elevator doors in the lobby, which the students in past years festooned with caricatures of famous people through history, from Egyptian pharaohs to business tycoons.

The lower school doesn't place its students in traditional grades, but in academic "levels."

Classes and learning tools range from the Cave and Renaissance clubs to a giant papier mache dragon, the school mascot, which used to guard the lobby, but now hangs in a stairwell.

During the tour, students in a technology class could be seen painting barrels and drawing video game motifs for a planned "Super Mario Bros." entry in this year's Kinetic Sculpture Races. Last year's theme was a Rube Goldberg contraption.

The school, well equipped with computers and electronic blackboards called smart boards, also stresses field trips and trips abroad as part of what Lightfoot called an "immersive, hands-on learning" strategy. Students have gone to Costa Rica, Spain and France. The school also stresses creative play, movement classes in which students act out songs, and projects such as putting out a newspaper called Lab 10.

Lightfoot said one unexpected partnership has emerged. A Gilman School student, whose sister goes to Baltimore Lab, started "Dragon Aid," to raise money for field trips and trips abroad, Lightfoot said. He added, "We have had generous parents covering the costs of some of those trips."

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