It’s Friday morning rush hour at The Park School of Baltimore, as sunlight—and students—stream into the lower-school lobby. With the school day about to begin, the mood is something akin to “rope drop” (or opening hour) at Disney World, as an eager crowd of students waits for the clock to strike 8:10 a.m., the time they are first allowed down the hallway into their classrooms. To bide time, two students play a game of one-handed catch; another student helps second-grade teacher Deborah Silverman fill bags for the monthly Viva House food donations; still other students inch down the hallway while Patti Steinberg, administrative assistant and ad hoc keeper of the gate, holds the crowd at bay. “I always have my crew of kids who ask, ‘How much longer?’” laughs Steinberg.
Third-grader Leo Meltzer has the morning shift down to a science. “We get excited about the day,” he explains, smiling. “We are supposed to walk down the halls, but sometimes we run. I usually fast walk to get to my class.”
From her room, third-grade teacher Ann Starer, has witnessed the early morning stampede for her past 13 years at the Brooklandville school nestled on 100 acres just off Old Court Road. “Some people try to hold them back,” says Starer, “but I see it as beautiful. They are literally racing and bursting into the rooms. They can’t wait to get there.”
Kids who love school so much they need to be contained from rushing to class? That’s one for the books, and somewhere, Hans Froelicher Sr.—who co-founded the school 100 years ago—is surely smiling.
From the outset, The Park School took a revolutionary approach to education, distinguishing itself from other area independent schools with an emphasis not only on reading, writing, and arithmetic, but on a style of joyful learning that’s still tangible in the school’s storied halls.
“Former headmaster Parvin Sharpless likes to tell a story about a father who came to talk to him, [concerned] about his son,” says upper-school principal Kevin Coll. “The student was having a great experience, so Parvin tried to get at what the problem was. The father said, ‘I just have to tell you, I’m suspicious. Every day my child is eager to go to school.’”
By contrast, a century ago, the traditional approach to education emphasized that “children needed to be made to learn,” writes Jean Thompson Sharpless, author of The Park School of Baltimore: The First Seventy-Five Years (and Sharpless’s wife). But The Park School took a page from a burgeoning Progressive Movement of education—where, in the words of school archivist Michelle Feller-Kopman, “Learning was not forced, but a happy process.”
When it first opened on September 30, 1912—then located in a private mansion across the street from Druid Hill Park (hence the name)—The Park School was one of just a few progressive schools in the country. It was built as a reaction to political corruption (then-Mayor James Preston favored the spoils system) and a lowering of educational standards in the Baltimore public schools, as well as the anti-Semitism prevalent at the time.
“Park was founded because of exclusionary practices in Baltimore,” explains Feller-Kopman. “Jews and Gentile parents were unhappy with the school system, and they started to look elsewhere, but the Jewish parents didn’t have [many] alternatives in Baltimore.”
The school was formed by raising $100,000 in 10 days from stock certificates and through a meeting held at the all-Jewish private club for men, The Phoenix Club. It was there that they ironed out the final details of the mission of Park School, “a co-educational institution . . . which will absolutely ignore religion, leaving that strictly to the home training,” according to a March 26, 1912 article in The Baltimore Sun.
“We were pushing social barriers,” says director of upper-school admissions Ruthie Sachs Kalvar, who graduated from Park in 1985. “For Jews and Gentiles to be educated together was a really progressive notion for Baltimore back then.”
Decades later, in June of 1954, Park made Baltimore history again: Under mounting pressure from the student body, the board voted to “receive application from any family suitable in interest or ambition,” making Park the first independent school in Baltimore to admit African-American students as well. (Though Brown v. Board of Education ended segregation in public schools in May 1954, the law did not apply to private schools.)
Veteran Park history teacher and lacrosse coach Stephen “Lucky” Mallonee, who attended Park’s kindergarten in 1949 and graduated in 1962, reminisces about those tumultuous times. “I don’t recall the students having any problem here,” says Mallonee. “But I do remember a bunch of Park students eating at [The White Coffee Pot] with Wilhelma Garner, one of the first African-American students on campus. The story goes that the waitress came over and said, ‘We don’t serve black people,’ and she said, ‘I’m not black, I’m Hawaiian.’ At the end of the meal, the waitress came over and said, ‘You’re the first Hawaiian we’ve ever served.’ And Willie said, ‘There will be more.’”
Pick a random day of the week to visit, and it’s hard not to notice that, true to Park’s roots, the school is still breaking new ground. It’s visible in the surrounding woods, where the school became one of the first in the country to include a student-designed Outward Bound–style challenge course; in the parking lot, where students in an automotive physics class drive a moped they’ve refurbished; and the hallways, where students seem to spill out and do everything from study plant life in the Arctic for an upcoming school trip to play the guitar.
Indeed, it’s in the classes and hallways of Park that the school’s educational ideals truly flourish.
“It is not untrue that you will find kids lying in the hallways when you walk by,” says Pete Hilsee, director of communications. “But they’re not talking about SpongeBob. They’re talking politics, science, and math. They’re collaborating, they’re speaking in groups, and looking at primary sources.” Upper-school English teacher Howard Berkowitz puts it another way: “We’ve given these kids freedom . . . If you put limits on kids then they hit those limits and that’s it. They own their education here. It’s not imposed [on them].”
Dan Paradis became headmaster at Park in 2008, in part, he says, because “Park is known as an academic powerhouse.” He used to bristle at the widely-held notion that students “run the school.” After all, that’s his job. But now he’s proud students play such a strong role. “Student voices matter at Park.,” he says.
Senior Abi Colbert-Sangree concurs. “I feel like I can have an impact at Park,” she says. Case in point: When Colbert-Sangree attended a student diversity conference last January, she learned about gender diversity, which inspired her (and others) to create a gender-neutral bathroom. “A population of kids at Park do not feel safe, due to their gender identity,” says Colbert-Sangree. “We thought that a simple way to improve their school life would be to convert a bathroom at Park to an ‘anybody’s bathroom.’” Colbert-Sangree and her cohorts met with teachers, wrote petitions and letters, and attended school faculty meetings to help make their plan a reality. The result: a men’s bathroom was converted to a gender-neutral bathroom this summer.
Senior Hannah Block echoes Colbert-Sangree’s sentiments. “I switched from Owings Mills High School my junior year,” says Block, “because I wasn’t getting the education I wanted. I love how involved we get at Park, I love that our teachers ask us what homework seems appropriate at the end of a class, I love that we are asked what we think.”
Alix Spiegel (Class of ’89), an award-winning NPR science reporter and founding producer of This American Life, is one of many in a long list of accomplished Park graduates (among them: Tom Rothman, CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, theoretical physicist Edward Witten, who invented superstring theory, and Manfred Guttmacher, the first forensic psychiatrist in the country and key witness at the Jack Ruby trial).
Spiegel says she remains indebted to the school she attended for 13 years. “They value critical thinking and individuality and that’s what has carried with me,” she says. “The intellectual curiosity that Park encouraged has helped me in my current job. They cultivated the sense that we live in this really interesting world that is full of possibility, and that has stuck with me to this day.”
Still, despite its roster of famous graduates, not all students are so anxious to get out there and make their mark on the world: “At Park, I’m excited to go to class and for all the things we do,” says Block. “I’ve asked my mom if I can fail this year so I can stay for another year! I’m not sure they’d like that, but I know I would.”