When Marion Browne founded a desegregated pre-school at “Grasshopper Green” in 1941, most private prep schools existed to teach French and shuttle their students into the Naval Academy, explained Margot Durkin, the new head of Browne Academy. But Browne’s progressive education ideas proved popular, and after four years the school needed more space than its Annandale site could provide. So Browne moved the campus to a farm on Telegraph Road. Originally housed in Graystone, a farmhouse that resembles a castle, Browne now has 272 students in preschool through eighth grade, and Graystone is surrounded on three sides by buildings for the lower and middle schools and a newly-opened athletic and performing arts center.
Durkin, who left a post as an assistant head-of-school at Stone Ridge Academy to take the top spot at Browne, said she was drawn to the school because of its “four core values:” excellence, diversity, character and community. “It’s really well defined what’s important at this school,” she said. “They’re really what everything is based on.”
DURKIN WAS BORN in D.C. and grew up in Silver Springs. She began her career in Montgomery County Public Schools before moving on to work in the administration of Academy of the Holy Cross in Kensington, Md., Bullis School in Potomac and Stone Ridge in Bethesda.
“I am particularly interested in students being able to write and speak well,” she said. “Those are tools they can use in any walk of life.” Browne Academy, Durkin said, shares her focus on preparing students academically. “We take great care they have all the tools they need to be successful in a college preparatory program in high school.”
Durkin will be able to participate directly in this preparation by teaching Browne’s eighth grade seminar, which provides students the dual opportunities of creating a major research project on the current event of their choice and making themselves familiar to Durkin so she can personalize their high school recommendations.
Alex Clain-Stefanelli, the head of the middle school, has been at Browne nine years. He said he vividly remembers his first class list. There were so many exotic international names on it that he had no idea how many boys or girls would be in his class. “I had a whole diverse world right in front of me,” he said. According to the school records, 115 students at the school were classified as people of color last year.
Perhaps because of this diversity, he added, new students are readily assimilated into the school community. “Over here there’s an openness. Within two to three weeks, a new student is no longer regarded as a new student, they’re part of the fiber of the school.”
Clain-Stefanelli also praised the school’s economic diversity. It currently costs a little less than $20,000 per year for students in kindergarten through Eighth grade to attend Browne. 10 percent of the school’s operating budget goes towards financial aid. “If the family demonstrates need, we try to meet it,” Durkin said. Last year 67 students received financial aid between $1,000 and $7,485.
Browne offers extracurricular activities to its students like sports, art and music. Clain-Stefanelli said the basketball team went undefeated last year, and the coach made sure that every player got the chance to play. He added that some students come before school in the mornings to play hand-bells. He believes the school’s new athletic and arts center will only increase the popularity of extracurricular activities, and will give the school more opportunities to provide them.
“We really have a vision here not just to educate the whole child but to help the child have balance, not just an academic experience but a social experience,” Durkin said. When she asked teachers “What is it I should never change about this school?” They replied, “Don’t change the family atmosphere. Don’t change the feeling of community.”