Loudoun County school administrators fell short of support for their recommendation to split 600 freshmen’s time between John Champe High School and Willard Middle School during the next two years.
The School Board voted 5-4 to continue with the original plan to operate Willard as an intermediate school starting next school year, housing eighth and ninth graders. Meanwhile sixth and seventh graders will attend Mercer Middle School, and grades 10 through 12 will be housed at John Champe High School until Lightridge High School opens in 2020.
That was the idea the board originally backed when it adopted attendance boundaries for the Stone Ridge area a year ago. The majority of board members agreed Tuesday that having eighth and ninth graders attend Willard Middle School full time until Lightridge opens two years later was the best option to accommodate a surge in enrollment growth in the southern end of the county.
But principals of the secondary schools and heads of the instruction department asked the board to reconsider that idea. Two weeks ago, they presented an alternate plan that would use excess capacity at Willard to open an annex for John Champe freshmen and have ninth-graders alternate daily between attending classes at the Willard and at John Champe.
“Under this plan, freshmen will get to maintain a level of high school experience because they’ll be on the John Champe campus half the time,” High School Director Nereida Gonzalez-Sales said. It would make it easier for freshmen to take part in after-school programs, spirit weeks, college and career events, and rub shoulders with upper classmen who serve as role models, she added.
The board ultimately rejected the idea, with Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge), Tom Marshall (Leesburg), Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin), Debbie Rose (Algonkian) and Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) opposed. Marshall threw his fist in the air in victory when he saw the votes fell in favor of the intermediate school.
He, Turgeon and Hornberger were the most vocal opponents to the idea of splitting freshmen’s time between two school buildings that sit 2 miles from one another. “The class would be split. Half the class would never see the other half. I have serious concerns with doing that,” Hornberger said.
Several board members asked if they could delay the vote, to get more feedback from the public. But administrators said the decision needed to be made as soon as possible because they are already on a tight timeline to prepare Willard for opening next school year.
Beth Huck (At Large), who favored having freshmen alternate days between Willard and John Champe, said she had only received three emails from people who disliked that option. “But when the intermediate school was announced, I heard from many families who wanted their child to get the John Champe High School experience as freshmen.”
Turgeon said board members likely haven’t received much feedback on the alternate option because it came forward at the last minute. “If this has caused such turmoil in our community, what has happened in the last 11 months? This should have been presented as an option then,” she said. Under the alternate plan, “they’re kind of in limbo, and I just don’t think that’s a good situation to put students in.”
The intermediate school will not be a first for Loudoun County. When western Loudoun saw an enrollment spike 15 year ago, Harmony Middle School near Hamilton operated as an intermediate school, housing eighth grade and freshmen students, from 2002 to 2010, when Woodgrove High School opened.