Blackboard jumble yields schools' past (Maryland)

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With its pillars and stone walls on a prominent hilltop in Ellicott City, the Patapsco Female Institute was once a 19th-century vision of a Greek temple: an academy to educate and refine young ladies and "future mothers."

But in southern Anne Arundel County, a humble, even homely one-room structure built several decades later was all the Nutwell School could offer its students.

The myth of the little red schoolhouse has only a kernel of truth, says James G. Gibb, an Annapolis-based archaeologist. From town to town, they varied in size, shape and stature. In a sense, each early school building was a measure, along with teacher pay, attendance rates and textbooks, of how high a community aimed in educating the next generation.

"Schoolhouses were the most common public buildings on the landscape," Gibb says. "They are a great place to look at a community, since so much of our lives are spent in school. The differences tell a lot. You get a view of a community's ambition, or lack thereof."

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