When talk of starting a charter school began among Hillsboro families, this year’s kindergartners were still in diapers.
It was May 2013, in response to Loudoun County School Board members’ threat of closing down the 50-year-old Hillsboro Elementary School. Its enrollment had dwindled to 66, and school system leaders said it was costing too much to keep the doors open for so few students.
The school’s parents and teachers thought converting it into a public charter school, with the flexibility to customize everything from lesson plans to student schedules, would be enough to draw new families and boost enrollment.
And already—four days before Hillsboro Charter Academy’s very first day—it seems to be working.
On Monday, the school opens as Loudoun County’s second charter school, and only the ninth in Virginia. It will welcome 122 students, the highest enrollment the building has housed since 2009.
“I’ll tell ya it’s been a hard and really long process. None of us had created a school before, so there was a tremendous amount of learning to be done on our part,” said Hillsboro Mayor Roger Vance, who is also vice president of the school’s board of directors. “Now, I go into the school and it’s like ‘wow, we did it. Can you believe it?’”
Most of the new school’s students are from western Loudoun towns, but a handful will commute each day from Leesburg, Ashburn and even Sterling. Mario Quevedo, of Leesburg, enrolled his second-grade son and kindergarten daughter at Hillsboro Charter after his coworkers raved about their experience at Middleburg Community Charter School, which opened in Loudoun two years ago.
Quevedo said his son, Jordan, had a good experience in kindergarten and first grade at Frederick Douglass Elementary, but he and his wife were always a bit on edge that he would be reassigned schools as part of boundary changes. Plus, they loved the idea of a school that tailored lessons to students’ learning styles. “I really liked their vision and plans for the school—we really love everything about it,” he said. “We’re just ready to give something new a shot.”
His daughter, 5-year-old Zury, already waded into that something new on Monday, when she took part in kindergarten orientation. “She cried on the way home because she wanted to stay longer,” Quevedo said. “Guess that’s a good sign.”
The word “familial” keeps coming to Principal Trisha Ybarra-Peters’ mind, as Hillsboro residents, parents, students, teachers, bus drivers and even Loudoun business leaders have shown up to help prep the building for the first day or donate classroom supplies.
“Our doors aren’t even open yet and we’re already seeing that family culture here,” she said. “People are having a lot of school pride knowing that they’ve been in the trenches to make their school beautiful.”
The fingerprints of longtime Hillsboro Elementary teachers are also on the charter school’s curriculum. Those who made up the charter committee and helped cast the very early vision for a new take on education in Loudoun created course work that focuses on STEAM—science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics—where lessons overlap multiple subject areas.
And students’ schedules will be structured around what Ybarra-Peters calls “authentic, project-based learning.” They will get more traditional classroom lessons each morning and spend their afternoons elbow-deep in various projects. “The age-old question that kids ask ‘why do I have to learn that?’ Every afternoon, they’ll see real-life applications to what they’re learning in the classroom,” she said.
It was that concept that drew Ybarra-Peters (along with 40 other educators) to apply for the principal position. During her years as a special education teacher, she always noticed that in-school projects were mostly saved for students in the gifted and talented programs. “When I saw the opportunity to be a part of a school that would be offering STEAM project-based learning, I wanted to be a part of it,” she said. “Because when you offer those up to all kids, they find gifts in themselves and in their peers that they would never see in a more traditional classroom.”
Hillsboro Charter Academy operates under the leadership of a board of directors, but it is still considered a Loudoun County public school and receives a portion of state and county funds for each enrolled student so it is tuition free.
The school will kick off its first day Monday by ringing the bell next door at Old Stone School, which served as the education center for Hillsboro students as early as 1874. Then, teachers will launch a rocket to demonstrate the future of education in the town. “We want to honor the past,” Ybarra-Peters noted, “and look ahead by launching into a new school year.”
Space is still available in second, fourth and fifth grade classrooms, and all other applicants will be placed on a wait list. Learn more at lcps.org/hillsboro.