By Roger Vance
As much as we sometimes desire otherwise, change in our communities is inevitable. But what should not be inevitable are outcomes that disregard or dishonor the past. It is often hard in the pressing present to consider and appreciate what has come before, to embrace the legacies built
by others. Doing so, however, can enrich—and reinforce—the legacies we ourselves will leave behind.
As Loudoun County has grown and been transformed in the past two decades, protecting and preserving our heritage has frequently been ignored or lost in the shuffle. But more and more communities are recognizing their past as a solid foundation for innovation and for building the future.
Today, a long and direct line of community centered education in rural western Loudoun is converging with an innovative approach to learning in the launch of the Hillsboro Charter Academy, preserving a legacy that stretches back uninterrupted for 140 years, while promising to create a unique legacy of its own.
The Virginia 1869 Constitution embedded the right to vote for “every male citizen of the United States, twenty-one years old” into state law. The constitution also mandated reforms to local government and recognized education as being a governmental responsibility, requiring the General Assembly to create a statewide system of free public schools.
With that, movements to create local public schools began, with one result being the opening of Hillsboro’s Locust Grove Academy in 1875. The school was situated on a locust tree-covered expanse at the foot of the north Short Hill on Charles Town Pike, just beyond the eastern 1802 boundary of Hillsboro. As with many of the homes and structures in Hillsboro, the local fieldstone from the nearby Short Hills was used in the original two-story structure.
The Hillsboro School played a significant role in the evolution of public education in the surrounding countryside and Loudoun County when it became consolidated in 1911 to serve children who had previously attended the Salem and Edgegrove schools. As demand grew, so too did the building, with the addition of the school’s center and a western stone wing added in 1917. In response to the needs of a growing school population, a brick auditorium was added to the rear of the stone wings in 1929. Accounts recorded in Hillsboro: Memories of a Mill Town, offer insights to the school and its greater role in the rural community: “Once a year the children would trudge up the hill and all the way through town to the Janney Mill, there to be weighed on the mill scales for the school records. Water came from the spring, and it was a special privilege to be the student chosen to carry it.”
By the middle of the 20th century, the Loudoun County School system was modernizing and consolidating, increasingly rendering the old-fashioned small schools throughout the district anachronistic. When the “new” Hillsboro Elementary School was completed in 1966, it incorporated grades one through seven from the adjacent historic structure. But with the new school’s opening, the historic school structure was imperiled. Used for storage, the building’s condition declined rapidly in the decade after it was closed, being susceptible to vandals and becoming an eyesore. In response to its slated demolition in the mid-1970s, a group of citizens and former students gathered together, founding the Hillsboro Community Association dedicated to saving the structure. Hillsboro’s Old Stone School today still serves the community as Town Hall, community center and event venue. The small distinctive circular-shaped Modern Movement school building, one of just a few in Northern Virginia, is today itself deemed a contributing structure to the Hillsboro Historic District and a part of the area’s legacy.
With population growth driving the building of new schools in the area, over the past decade, the small rural Hillsboro Elementary School was increasingly regarded as an inefficient relic and targeted for closure. And once again, the greater Hillsboro community banded together, taking the opportunity afforded by the Loudoun County School Board to create a public charter school that will occupy the building.
Offering a science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) project-based curriculum, the Hillsboro Charter Academy will continue a long tradition of innovative, community-based and driven education in a rural setting when it opens in September. It is anticipated that the adjacent Old Stone School will once again serve students in some adjunct capacity.
The Hillsboro Charter Academy’s motto, “Cultivating a Love for Learning,” borrows from its rural surroundings and succinctly describes its mission to inspire young minds. Let the legacy building begin.
[Roger L. Vance is the mayor of Hillsboro and former editor of American History magazine.]