By Sue Cowan
A lot has changed in Loudoun County since Guilford Elementary opened in 1966.
“Desegregation, computers, air conditioning,” lists the school system’s Public Information Officer Wayde Byard, while also noting the nearly tenfold growth in enrollment, from 8,072 to 76,263 today.
Guilford Elementary in Sterling, which celebrated its half centennial anniversary Thursday with a picnic, games and, of course, birthday cake, offers a window into these changes and charts a successful path through them, modeling a means of fostering academic achievement and a sense of community.
“The school is like a second home for students, providing them love and stability,” said Lauren Sprowls, who takes over as school principal on July 1. “It has roots in the community.”
Yet the school’s community has been a landscape of change over the years. Byard explains, “for more than 200 years, agriculture dominated Loudoun County. With the opening of Dulles Airport in 1962 and the development of over 1,700 acres of eastern Loudoun farmland into the planned community of Sterling Park, the county would be forever transformed to an extension of the Washington metropolis…In 1960, there were 24,549 Loudoun residents; in 2010, 312,311.”
With the growth in population, came a change in demographics. Given that Loudoun County’s public schools were still racially segregated when Guilford opened, Sterling’s black children were bused west to Douglass School in Leesburg until 1968. For almost 30 years after it opened, Guilford remained predominantly white until the late 1990s.
“It was like a small community school,” recalls Mark Pankau, whose has taught physical education at Guilford since 1995.
By the turn of the millennia, though, Loudoun had become one of the nation’s fastest growing counties, and Sterling, with its plentitude of construction jobs and relatively affordable housing, became a draw for many families from Central and South America.
“With the opening of Forest Grove Elementary, in 2002,” Pankau said, “and the accompanying boundary changes,” Guilford was transformed quickly into a school with children from diverse backgrounds, and teachers were challenged to meet a different set of student needs. “I learned to increase my wait time profoundly,” Pankau said, “as I knew the kids were both problem solving and translating to English.”
David Stewart, who was principal from 2006 until earlier this spring, recalls that at one point, 50 countries were represented among Guilford students.
Joanne Luoma, a teacher of multiple grades at Guilford since 1985, remembers that when she started teaching, the entire county’s English Language Learning program was housed in one small office. Today, 13 percent, or nearly 10,000 Loudoun students receive ELL services, including about three-fourths of Guilford’s 556 students.
Many of the elementary school’s families also face economic challenges. About 80 percent of its students come from low-income households and qualify for the federal free and reduced meal program. That’s increased from 35 percent in 2006, and is well above the current countywide average of 18 percent.
Some of the challenges to teach students from low-income families or are still learning English resulted in several years of low scores on the state Standards of Learning exams. In 2013, the school was designated as a “Focus School,” which meant the school’s reading scores fell low enough that the state stepped in and required them to hire school-improvement coaches.
With the help of the coaches, the school adopted new teaching practices to better meet students’ needs. Instead of pulling students out of the classroom for help with reading or English instruction, for example, specialists join the classroom teacher for much of the day, increasing the numbers of students served and decreasing teacher-student ratios. They also started team-teaching more, with common planning times coordinated so that grade level teachers can meet regularly with administrators, as well as art, music, technology and physical education teachers, to ensure goals are being met and lessons are integrated throughout all subject areas.
The efforts have meant a major turnaround for the school, and in 12 months it shed its “Focus School” designation. Today it boasts some of highest scores in the county, with 88 percent of students passing reading, and 93, 94, and 95 percent passing science, history and math, respectively.
Guilford is considered a model school in Loudoun. The school often host educators who want to replicate its success, Sprowls said.
Stewart and Sprowls are quick to credit their staff for the school’s improvements, noting teachers’ passion, love of children, “right motives,” and the spirit of collaboration and teamwork. Teachers appreciate the strategies implemented to better meet kids’ needs.
During the school’s birthday party Thursday evening, Guilford student class president Alexander Ayala said every one of his classmates knows their teachers care about them.
“They love the students, you can tell,” he said. “We’re celebrating that today and just the whole school environment.”
Guilford has reestablished the sense of community that existed in its early days, not an easy task for a school with a highly transient population. All communication sent from the school is bilingual, and the regular “Parent Coffees” now serve breakfast and cover topics such as how to interview. The school has also forged partnerships with Reston Bible Church, Rack Room Shoes, Costco, Washington Redskins and others that, together, have provided weekend food for families, books, shoes, backpacks, and other school supplies. The school staff also hosts an annual Thanksgiving dinner that serves more than 900 people.
Sprowls relays the sense of trust, love, and gratitude that families have for the school. “They are so appreciative and the students so respectful.”
During his comments at the birthday party, Stewart told students there’s no better place to make friends and to learn. Quoting the school’s motto he said: “This really is a place where smiles never end.”