Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Building students one motto at a time

Private schools instill values with words, then back them up with actions

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Chris Rossi⁄The Gazette
Private schools are as busy as public schools with extra curricular activities. Here, Connelly School of the Holy Child student Ainslie MacDougall (left) watches in March as Angela McCann rehearses ‘‘Footloose” with Peter Williams, recruited from The Heights School to play the male lead.
This year’s freshman class at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney will receive a little keepsake to attach to a key ring at orientation in a few weeks — a plastic card embossed with the school’s logo.

On the flip side is printed one of six values the students also see emblazoned on large banners lining the school driveway: trust, simplicity, zeal, civility, humanity and compassion.

‘‘Kids immediately start comparing the cards, checking out what each friend got,” said Melissa Huey-Burns, director of marketing and press relations. ‘‘It starts them talking about those values from day one.”

Like many private schools across the county, Good Counsel uses a motto or school year theme as a teaching tool, a way to impart its unique values to students.

Found on school crests, banners, publications and inscribed on walls and even floors, the words lend a focus to each school day.

And keeping students focused is part of the appeal of private schools, whether via the average class size of 12 to 20 students or the standards expressed in a school motto.

Private schools are flourishing in the county, with 260 private schools educating nearly 40,000 students, according to September 2006 statistics compiled by the Maryland State Department of Education. Montgomery County Public Schools are also thriving, with its 200 schools expected to enroll 145,622 in 2008, according to its Web site.

A private school motto may vary from long phrases to a just a few words in English or Latin, but all provide one thing to students: a sense of direction that parents approve of and students strive to achieve.

The core ‘‘belief” of Good Counsel, a Catholic co-ed school of 1,200 students in grades nine to 12, is found in its motto: ‘‘In today’s world the loving, good person, even alone, can make a difference.”

‘‘The belief goes back 50 years to when the school was founded,” Huey-Burns said. ‘‘It tells our students they can go out in the world, with their knowledge and gifts, and make a real difference. We may tweak it every year, to make it fresh. Last year, we used ‘Go, make a difference’ as the theme.”

But actions have to back up the words to make them stick. The 274 students who graduated this spring compiled an impressive 30,000 hours of community service.

‘‘I’m not saying that some kids don’t scoff at [the motto], especially the older ones...but it becomes part of them,” Huey-Burns said.

Because the school motto or theme focuses student energy and efforts, administrators at the Bullis School in Potomac get together each spring to carefully mull over a new theme for its 635 students in grades three to 12.

Last year’s theme of ‘‘Building a more respectful community” was reinforced through guest speakers like Charles V. Willie, a Civil Rights-era leader, and a Japanese-American woman interned as a teenager during World War II.

‘‘It was all about showing the horrific outcomes that can result from being disrespectful of others,” said Glenn Schwitter, development director.

At school assemblies and during weekly, small-group meetings with teacher-advisors, the theme is brought home again and again.

‘‘Aside from the academics, we want to focus on moral development,” Schwitter said. ‘‘This year the theme is ‘responsibility,’ especially in regard to the environment.”

To back up that theme, the school has plans to go all out ‘‘green” by serving locally grown produce in the cafeteria, ramping up its recycling efforts and joining an energy-buying program that uses power generated by windmills.

‘‘You’ve got to live what you teach,” Schwitter said.

At other schools, the motto that shapes their daily lives dates back — way back.

The Holton-Arms School in Bethesda has lived since the school’s founding in 1901 under a Latin motto that translates as ‘‘To find a way, or make one.” But this coming year, newly arrived Head of School Susanna Jones decided on ‘‘Connections” as an appropriate theme.

‘‘Connections between the students...the alumni, the teachers, the parents, and the wider community all build on what we’re about,” she said of the school of 660 girls in grades three to 12.

‘‘The [theme] gives you a touchstone, a focus for the year,” she said.

The motto with the oldest pedigree is ‘‘Let Your Lives Speak” which can be found over the main entrance of the Upper School and embedded in the floor of the Middle School gathering room at the Sandy Spring Friends School in Sandy Spring.

The phrase is attributed to George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, and is as relevant today as when Fox uttered it in the mid-1600s, said Karl Gedge, assistant head of the school that educates 555 pre-kindergarten to 12th grade students.

‘‘It’s very much front and center on campus,” he said. ‘‘We believe your life speaks by its actions, by its good works towards those in your immediate community and the world at large.”

The school supports faculty and student trips to help the needy and work for the environment in places as far away as South Africa and as near as West Virginia.

‘‘The faculty leads by example and participate in all the service projects,” Gedge said.

At the Avalon School in Bethesda, teachers set the example simply by maintaining a cheerful disposition, a goal set by the school’s motto of ‘‘Put out into the deep.”

‘‘Those words were spoken by Pope John Paul II,” said Ellen Clifford, assistant head of the school with 240 boys in grades three to 12. ‘‘It’s about going into life with enthusiasm, being adventuresome and willing to take risks.”

The school emphasizes academics, athletics — and cheerfulness, she said.

‘‘Some people look askance at that, but the boys know it means having a positive attitude and having faith in yourself and God.”

While the crest with the school motto is found in each classroom, the school’s values are really instilled via the example of enthusiastic teachers and fellow students.

‘‘We have students that others want to emulate,” she said. ‘‘We’ve got the captain of our winning baseball team standing up and reciting [poetry]. That says it all.”