Ellicott City's Trinity School, recently honored by the U.S. Department of Education as one of the nation's exemplary elementary schools, looks like it belongs in the British countryside. With Tudor-style buildings secluded on 180 acres of woods and rolling pasture off Ilchester Road, the private Catholic institution seems a model school for the elite.
But Trinity's board of directors is adamant that it not be so, supplementing tuition for 25 of its 360 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, according to the Department of Education review that is used in selecting honored schools.
"It is part of the philosophy of the school, so it is budgeted in," with scholarships of $600 to $3,600, explained Sister Catherine Phelps, who has been principal for 20 of the 49 years Trinity has had a lower school. Trinity's high school for girls closed in 1972.
Trinity, administered by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, is one of 41 private schools that, along with 180 public elementary schools, were honored at a White House ceremony last week.
Trinity, one of nine schools in the Washington region to be honored, was cited for its excellence in the sciences and languages, its small classes of no more than 20 children, and close interaction between the schools' 25 teachers and their students.
All students study French, starting in the fifth grade, and begin science laboratory work in third grade. Most eighth-graders also take Latin, a class that meets one day a week after school and once during school.
Sister Catherine said many Trinity students go on to advance placement courses in science, language and other areas. About 70 percent of the students live in Howard.
The only private Catholic school in Howard aside from three parish-run schools, Trinity also emphasizes religious education.
"I like it because it has a Christian atmosphere," said Ellicott City resident Stephanie Major, whose 13-year-old twin daughters have attended the school since kindergarten. "The Christian virtues are woven into the curriculum. You can tell by a general feeling there, the way children are toward each other."
Also, children are taught "how to respect the teachers, which carries over to respecting elders in other situations," Major said. "The school doesn't tolerate really permissive behavior."
Major said she and her husband had looked at public schools but did not like the open-space classrooms in some Howard County schools in which several classes are conducted in one large area.
The grounds and buildings at Trinity are immaculate, the students don't appear to be under stress, and there is a "business-like atmosphere during class time" but a lot of praise as well, wrote Janet Murray, a Mobile, Ala., school principal who evaluated the school for the Department of Education.
Alison Margel, 14, who was president of the student council at Trinity last year, said that at Notre Dame Preparatory in Towson, Md., which she now attends, "the people who went to Trinity are more prepared."
Murray, the Alabama principal, said in an interview that she found the curriculum at Trinity far more advanced than in many schools.
"It was not just in the use of above-level books in the lower-level classrooms. It was the level of thought expressed by children and teachers . . . . The way students interacted with other students was more of the level you would see in a high school or college situation, as well as the type of teaching that went on. It was not all lectures," she said.
Also, Murray said in her review, "Due to the family-like environment, students feel that everyone knows them and there is little they can get away with without parents being informed."
Columbia resident Melissa Richards, whose son and daughter are enrolled at Trinity, said she likes the feedback she gets from teachers there, the fact that there are "homework and books coming home," and the requirement that children wear uniforms. "It gives them a whole different perspective on what you're going to school to do," she said.