Disenchanted with the academic abilities of the seniors she was teaching at a Baltimore high school, Catherine Corrigan decided there was only one way to ensure that students would be literate: She would teach them herself, in her own elementary school.
So 40 years ago, at the age of 24, Corrigan opened Woodlawn School in Bethesda. Last week the popular private school, which has taught more than 4,500 children, closed its doors.
Many of the school's alumni, teachers, students and parents gathered early this month to celebrate Corrigan's career and bid farewell to the old school. The alumni, many of whom toted children who were enrolled in Woodlawn, reminisced about their experiences at the school.
"It was always a warm place," said Dorothy Hall, a Rockville resident and NASA scientist who attended the school in the early 1960s and whose sons, Will Wright, 8, and John, 6, attended Woodlawn. "I don't have the same fond memories of other schools I went to."
Eileen Blankenbaker, of Bethesda, hadn't returned to Woodlawn in 25 years, but when her son Eric, now 6, was ready for preschool, her first thought was to call Corrigan. Blankenbaker had hoped to send her second child, due in August, to the school as well. "We had it all planned; if only she wasn't closing," she said.
Corrigan said she made the decision to close the school last year after realizing that it was impossible to keep up with the rising costs of operating it and maintaining the property.
Corrigan, a Baltimore resident with a degree in education from Notre Dame College in Maryland, launched her experiment in the fall of 1950 with a few of her family's tables cut down to child size, a couple of desks and a donated piano. "My family was amazed; they really wanted me to get married," said Corrigan, who was still in graduate school at Catholic University at the time.
Ten students ages 3 to 12 signed up for the school's first semester, recalled Corrigan. "We were like a one-room country school. All grades studied together and I lived in the attic," she said.
But three years later, the student population had grown to more than 100 and Corrigan needed more space. She found the school's current home on Oak Place, a few miles north of the original school building.
The bucolic five-acre site is more like a college campus than elementary school grounds. Classes are held in a farmhouse-turned-schoolhouse, a separate one-room cottage holds the library, and a swimming pool and outdoor stage are nestled under a canopy of century-old trees.
In the school's early years Corrigan and her assistant taught all the grade levels, nursery through seventh. Corrigan also drove the school bus and once a year piled a group of children into her Mercury convertible for a field trip to New York City. After her marriage in 1964, she dropped grades four through seven and eventually phased out third grade in an effort to concentrate on the earlier grades.
A number of parents have tried to dissuade Corrigan from closing.
"I've had a stream of parents in here with infants and toddlers begging me to keep the school going," she said. "I even had one pregnant woman come in here, point to her stomach and say 'How could you do this to me?' "
Bekir Sisman, whose wife, Deborah, attended Woodlawn from 1958 to 1963, lamented the school's passing at the party and said he is unhappy about having to send his son, Arif, 4, to a school in downtown Bethesda. "This is the perfect environment," he said, studying the rolling lawns and clusters of trees. "My son's new school is on the fourth floor of an office building."
Corrigan said that the development company that bought the property plans to demolish the buildings and construct 20 luxury homes on the site.
Corrigan's retirement plans are uncertain, but she said she hopes to spend more time with her husband and four children. However, she hinted that she's not ready to give up the classroom completely. "I can't say that I'll never go back," she said.
Even at her own retirement party, Corrigan took up her post at the head of the class, reading to a flock of children who circled her from a scrapbook filled with their poems and picture memories of their time at Woodlawn.