In the morning, the headmaster in his tweed coat greets his daily charges by name as they enter the old manor house overlooking rolling farmlands.
Asking about his students' homework or weekend activities, Charles H. Miller Jr. said he "wants the children to feel they're being welcomed in the morning."
And joining with Miller or teachers in the afternoon goodbyes are Labradors Molly and Tyler, a golden and black twosome taken to peeking in school windows and joining in on the playing fields of the 80-acre Glenelg campus.
The rolling farmlands have begun sprouting suburbia, and some pupils' overriding desire is to wear the forbidden denim. But the daily scene at the 34-year-old Glenelg Country School, Howard County's only nonreligious private school, is as close to quaint tradition as is probably now possible.
Established in Howard's quieter, rural times by several local families in search of classical learning close to home, Glenelg and its prep school traditions are a favorite alternative of the young families of Columbia, the home of most of the school student body.
Glenelg parents, who typically are both working outside the home, "are a very high-achieving group and expect their children to be high-achieving," explained Lynda Ellestad, head of Glenelg's lower school. "They make education a priority for their child."
Housed in a circa 1845 Norman and Tudor-style mansion and a new high school building, Glenelg's classes are small and the 300 students orderly. French begins in kindergarten here, and up to two hours of completed homework is expected from the older students in the morning.
The curriculum is traditional college prep with a concentration on writing, even in the lower grades. "People just don't learn to write any more," lamented headmaster Miller. In the new high school, students dress formally and discussion groups are emphasized over lectures and note-taking.
Admitted are students of average and above-average ability, "those able to take advantage of the more rigorous and faster pace," Miller said. Besides Howard County, students come from Montgomery, Carroll and Baltimore counties.
But with maximum 16- to 18-student class sizes, the school's "most important characteristic" is its "close personal attention," Miller said. That contrasts with the average of 25 students per class in the county's public elementary and middle schools. And schools in the high-growth areas along Rte. 40 have as many as 30 students in a class, public school officials said.
Glenelg's teachers "know the children well," said Miller, who has been at the school for 11 years. "Needs are immediately taken care of."
Communication with parents is also immediate with weekly teacher reports on assignments in progress sent home for a parent's signature.
Parent Joanne Bryan said she "feels so close" to her children's teachers that she "doesn't even hesitate" to call or visit.
"You don't parent in a vacuum and you don't instruct in a vacuum," said Ellestad. If teachers hear of a divorce in a family, "it is not unusual for all of us to sit down and talk about how to deal with it," she said.
And students join with parents in acknowledging that the individualized attention is important.
Such personal notice brings a "definite feeling of confidence," said 11th grader Matthew McCarron, who left the school for two years but "It's hard to get into trouble. Parents are really anxious to have that in this day and age . . . . "
-- headmaster Charles H. Miller Jr.
came back after complaining about the "uncontrolled atmosphere" at a larger school.
"I love it," said 12-year-old Scott Prentiss of Columbia, who has also spent time at another school. "You get a lot more help."
Ruth T. Shaw, head of the school's active parents group, took her two daughters out of Carroll County public schools because they were "sort of languishing in the background . . . They were not working to their potential."
Her children are doing well at Glenelg, Shaw said. Besides the special math help one daughter received, the difference at Glenelg is that students "get a push, encouragement and expectations are high," she said.
Glenelg's annual tuition, from $3,850 to $5,250, is "a burden," Shaw said. "We give up things, but we think it's worth doing because we see the difference."
Miller and parents said the school also has attracted families dissatisfied with the open-classroom philosophy of most of the public elementary schools in which few barriers are constructed between classes. "Background noise, distraction; it's one of the complaints I hear," Miller said. "I think that is what parents are running away from."
The school's kindergarten and elementary grades are near their capacity of 300 students, but the 150-student capacity, two-year-old high school has only 27 students. Miller said he is disappointed in that number but remains hopeful after talking with officials at private Washington area high schools that also experienced slow starts.
The "very good" reputation of the Howard County public schools is one reason Glenelg has not seen "dramatic" increases in new pupils as the county has recorded massive growth, Miller said.
Also, many of the county's new young families cannot contend with new home mortgages and a Glenelg tuition, which falls in the middle range for nonpublic schools in the Washington area, he said. The school provides financial aid for some students.
With such close scrutiny of the students, discipline is not really a problem at the school, teachers said. "It's hard to get into trouble," Miller said. "Parents are really anxious to have that in this day and age, particularly when both work."
And with the school's practice of annually extending invitations to students to return in the fall, the school can weed out "bad apples," said Kevin Boland, a Glenelg administrator, teacher and sports coach. Boland owns Molly and Tyler, who follow him throughout the day, building to building.
Overall, the school wants students committed to learning or "serious to the point that education is a priority," Boland said.
It is that commitment that was the driving force behind the school's founding in 1954, said Kingdon Gould Jr., a Howard resident who started the school with several other county families.
Gould, a Washington area real estate developer and coowner of PMI parking lots, heads the nonprofit school's board of trustees, which includes mostly parents and two Howard public school officials.
Although he praised the county school system, Gould said that education standards in the United States are not high enough. He explained that he and his wife had attended private schools and wanted the same for their nine children.
A community can benefit from different types of schooling, Gould said: "If you only have one system, you never know how good or bad that system is."