From the outset, Key School worked to forge an identity that coupled experiential and innovative learning with a rigorous and essentially classical curriculum.
Historical photos of Hill's Delight before it became Key School. Images from the Maryland State Archives.
The Idea of a School
The Key School was founded in 1958 by several tutors from nearby St. John's College who were interested in offering their children the finest possible academic foundation. These college professors, convinced that children possess inherent intellectual vitality that schools generally do not reach, agreed to bring discerning teachers and promising students together in small classes.
The School differentiated itself in terms of its belief in the individual and its emphasis on respect for human differences.
The first site for the School, a rented house on Chesapeake Avenue in Eastport, housed a student body of eighteen in grades one through three and a faculty of two. A grade was added each year, and in 1961 the School outgrew the original location and moved to the present more spacious facilities on the site of the old Smith mansion in Hillsmere Shores, overlooking the South River and the Chesapeake Bay.
By the 1970s, the School's enrollment had grown to include 360 students in grades Pre-Kindergarten through twelve, with virtually all graduates going on to higher education. Ongoing renovations and new construction throughout the 1980s and 1990s allowed the campus to meet the demands of a growing student population and an expanding educational program.
The Idea of a School
Read the original statement of purpose, written by Thomas K. Simpson, February 1958.
The most distinctive structures on the Key campus were inherited from the former estate of Martin H. Smith. The Manse, the Farmhouse, Smith House, and the barns and gazebos are all remnants of the large and elaborate summer residence of Mr. Smith, an Annapolis native who made a fortune through his ownership of a New York pharmaceutical company. Through a series of purchases between 1903 and his death in 1930, Mr. Smith compiled a 521-acre property that included the present-day Hillsmere Shores neighborhood. While time and the development of a suburban community have obliterated most of the traces of the Smith property, the surviving structures lend Key a sense of the charm and grace of the meticulously planned estate.
Though the distinctive buildings date from the Martin Smith era, the property — which, curiously, has been owned by three different families named Smith — has a much longer history. The property that contains today's Hillsmere community was first patented by Zacharia Smith in 1646. The name Hillsmere, at least its first syllable, has a similarly long pedigree. In 1651, the section of this land that contains the current Key campus was sold to John Hill and became known as "Hill's Delight." The name remained attached to this property until 1903 when Martin Smith changed it to "Hilsmere" (sic). The name's current spelling can be traced to 1952.
On November 27, 1914, the development of the Hilsmere estate — and the future Key School — was affected in a profound way by a fire that destroyed the property's principal structure, the fourteen-room residence. In a page-one account, a writer for the Evening Capital reported that the "demon" fire began at about 11:00 p.m. and reduced the house to ashes in a short time, consuming hunting trophies, "relics from all over the world" including "rugs, rare tapestries, armor, musical instruments of all kinds" as well as the house's furnishings.
Originally called the Hilsmere Manor House, the building known today as the Manse was designed by New York architect Cyrus Y. Bissell and was constructed on the site of the burned building. With its open porches, large windows and French doors, the building made the best possible use of the visual and climatic opportunities offered on the estate. The house's blending of indoor and outdoor spaces was maximized by the water-facing porch as well as the triple French doors on the living room's south wall. In all, the Bissell design was a masterpiece, producing a remarkably beautiful and comfortable home whose grace persists despite numerous renovations.
The estate's largest barn — now the home of Key's Middle and Upper Schools — serves as another visual reminder of Martin Smith's estate. Although the barn that was built and expanded at various points during the Smith era was destroyed by a fire in January of 1930, the barn as we know it today was constructed on the remaining foundation. In fact, it was while supervising the reconstruction that Mr. Smith contracted his final illness.
The gazebos, so closely identified with Key, were added to Hilsmere during the 1920s. Though attractive and surprisingly comfortable on a hot summer's day, the gazebos do not seem to have been intended as anything other than oversized garden ornaments located to complement the design of the Manse. In addition to the three gazebos that remain on Key's campus, a fourth is located on what is today East Bay View Drive. The estate's fifth gazebo was once located at the tip of Hill's Point.
Other buildings remodeled over the years for School purposes include the Farmhouse, originally the laundry and servants' quarters; Smith House, home to the estate's manager; and the Art Barn, formerly designated the maternity barn.
With the death of Martin Smith, the development of Hilsmere Farm ceased. The property remained in family possession and served as a summer home until 1952. In that year, the 521-acre estate was subdivided for suburban housing and all Hilsmere Farm structures with the exception of those immediately adjacent to the Manor House and the main barn were torn down. Ironically, the real estate company that managed the subdividing was Smith Brothers, and realtors John and Marie Smith established their office and their home in the former manager's quarters. In 1961, The Key School, Inc. purchased the Manor House, the Farmhouse, the two remaining barns, and the surrounding acres. Subsequent purchases by Key School included additional acreage and finally, in the spring of 1989, Smith House.
(endnote: The Key Review, Fall 1998, based on research by Key faculty members Charlie Flanagan and Juliette Thompson)
Since February 2018, we have been communicating with members of our community about reports of sexual misconduct by former faculty that victimized students in the seventies, eighties and nineties. The resulting independent investigation, led by Kramon & Graham, was formally launched by Key’s Leadership and Board of Trustees in April 2018. The investigators completed their efforts and submitted a report of their findings to the Board of Trustees in January 2019. The report was shared with the Key community in this letter on January 28, 2019.
Key School today is a very different place than the environment described in the Kramon & Graham report. Our commitment to our students and families is our top priority, and we work proactively to ensure the safety and well-being of all students. Any concern brought to the School’s attention, now or in the future, will be investigated immediately. As Court Mandated Reporters, all School personnel are required by law to share with Child Protective Services any report of any type of inappropriate conduct related to children.
The Kramon & Graham report did not contain any allegation or finding of past misconduct against any current member of the Key faculty, staff or administration.
Key School now has in place policies, procedures, and practices designed to protect students. Our faculty/staff handbook sets clear expectations for employee conduct. Multiple avenues of support are available to students, including unrestricted and timely access to school counselors, advisors and administrators. Other protections include professional development training for all employees, a student abuse reporting process, an FBI national background check, and a State of Maryland background check which includes automatic notification of any subsequent police interaction.
Key School has retained Praesidium, a national firm specializing in employee sexual misconduct training, to provide additional training for all employees in 2019 and beyond. Key is also actively engaged with RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) to guide the School's efforts in supporting alumni/ae/x, providing professional development training for all employees, and reviewing policies and procedures relating to abuse and misconduct.