Vance: Good Things in Small, Old Packages

By Roger Vance

Last week, the Loudoun County Public School Board released recommended names for four new schools slated for opening in the next few years. Chosen by committees of parents, students and teachers, the recommended names of three of the schools pay homage to the surrounding area’s historic roots.

Goshen Post Elementary commemorates a colonial-era postal stop in the area of southeast Loudoun. The Dulles South Willard Middle School is intended to recognize the unincorporated village of Willard. This settlement was the home of former enslaved peoples and their descendants, which came to a shameful end in 1958 when all of Willard’s landowners had their property condemned for the development of Dulles Airport.

Also in Dulles South, Lightridge High School’s name is derived from Light Ridge Farm, a longtime dairy farm that was emblematic of the key role dairy farming had in the rich agricultural history of Loudoun—east and west—well into the late 20th century.

These modern new schools will, by virtue of their names, give deserved recognition and raise awareness to their historic namesake places, a thoughtful and meaningful gesture as the Loudoun landscape is dramatically transformed by unprecedented growth and development.

In light of that, it is a bit ironic that an almost annual ritual for the School Board is the discussion about the benefits of closing the remaining small schools in the county’s rural west that are educating children in still-existing historic towns and villages. The targets this spring were Lincoln Elementary and Hamilton Elementary, with student populations of approximately 100 and 160, respectively. Each of these schools is beloved by their communities, students, faculty and staff and attract students from beyond their enrollment boundaries because of their small size and—most important—by their consistent excellence in education.

Roger Vance

Fortunately, this year’s debate over the savings in closing the two schools—a purported $1.15 million in a district budget of $1.12 billion—was short-lived. However, history tells us renewed calls for closing the schools is likely, and consequently, the communities are again mobilizing.

It was precisely that cyclical anxiety during the past decade that led the residents of two of Loudoun’s smallest historic towns, along with school faculty and staff, to take the bold decision to assume community control and create the county’s first public charter schools (and among the less than 10 in the entire commonwealth) in place of their small elementary schools repeatedly targeted for closure.

Years of grassroots organizing, planning and School Board negotiations resulted in the opening of the Middleburg Community Charter School in 2014 and Hillsboro Charter Academy in 2016. Welcoming students from across Loudoun County to their small, old buildings, these schools are today thriving incubators of innovative educational programs for elementary students. Each school has weathered challenges—anticipated and unanticipated—as they navigate in the unchartered waters of tuition-free public charter schools, which requires substantial grants and private fundraising to meet their educational missions. Each has engendered excitement in their students, parents and faculty, and been embraced by their communities, building strong foundations for ongoing success as they pursue out-of-the-box alternatives to traditional educational approaches.

Both schools have made a culture of collaboration and connectivity of the entire school community central to their core mission. And, while fully comporting with Virginia standards of learning and meeting all the state Department of Education requirements, Middleburg and Hillsboro offer innovative curriculums designed to stimulate student curiosity and critical thinking and embed a love for learning that becomes a lifetime trait.

Hillsboro Charter Academy has fully embraced a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) curriculum that utilizes a Project-Based Learning approach for its approximately 125 students. In its first year, the school has won accolades for its successful STEAM implementation and enriching environment. It has become a much sought-after school for children from across the county. In its enrollment lottery for the 2017-18 school year, all available seats were filled, with a wait-list of nearly 60 children.

Guiding Middleburg’s path is The Leonardo DaVinci Project, which models learning on the thinking habits of the 15thcentury Renaissance genius Leonardo DaVinci. With approximately 110 pupils, many from outside Middleburg, the school has also begun to introduce LEGO robotics and STEAM programs to its curriculum. It has adopted a problem-based, cross-disciplinary teaching and learning approach.

The explosive growth of Loudoun and its public school system has seen the construction of many new, large schools in the past decade on an unprecedented level. The system now comprises nearly 90 schools to accommodate some 80,000 students, and continues to grow by some 2,000 students annually.

While honoring the history of long-gone communities by naming some of these new—and unquestionably needed—schools after them, the School Board would bestow an even greater honor by respecting the legacy of the remaining small community schools and recognizing the value of the diversity they bring to their large and sometimes imposing system. The unique quality of these small venerable treasures, which serve as centers of their small communities as well as centers for excellence in innovative education, should be cherished and proudly displayed as an example of an enlightened community and School Board.

Especially as Loudoun gives rise to shiny new cutting-edge communities and cities, it is important to keep in mind that good things often come in small, and old, packages.

[Roger Vance is the mayor of Hillsboro and also serves on the Hillsboro Charter Academy Board of Directors.]

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