Loudoun’s charter schools, housed in two of the county’s smallest and oldest public school buildings, are seeing more students apply than they have space to enroll.
Middleburg Community Charter School, in its fourth year, and Hillsboro Charter Academy, in its second year, have seen a gradual uptick in interest since they opened. Already for next school year, 152 students have applied for Middleburg Charter, and Hillsboro Charter Academy has received 106 applicants for 34 openings. In kindergarten alone, 54 students have applied for 23 openings.
“It looks like in kindergarten there will be a lot of disappointed people,” Hillsboro Principal Mark Wertheimer said.
And families still have time to apply, ahead of the enrollment lottery. Middleburg’s application deadline is March 20, and the deadline to apply to Hillsboro is March 2. Both schools will hold lotteries within a week of their application deadlines to determine which students make the cut. From there, students’ names will be placed on a wait list in the order their applications were received.
Ironically, it was low enrollment that had school leaders threatening to close the two schools six years ago. Hillsboro Elementary had just 66 students in its last year in 2016, and Middleburg Elementary had 59 students in its last year in 2014. That’s what spurred parents, teachers and other community members to form committees and put together an application to transform them into public charter schools.
The idea was that a charter school, although still tuition-free and publically funded has more flexibility in how it delivers curriculum, so can offer more of a magnet-style program.
And in Loudoun, it’s worked. Both Hillsboro and Middleburg elementary schools had allowed open enrollment for years, but didn’t have much luck attracting students living outside of the area to their schools, which sit out of the way on the edge of the county. Now, some student are students are traveling as far away as Ashburn, more than 20 miles away, to attend the schools.
At Hillsboro, for example, its curriculum is focused on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) and project-based learning. It also offers a longer school day. The Middleburg charter school offers an extended school year, running from the first week in August to the first week in June. It also offers a STEAM-focused curriculum, as well as enrichment classes to all students during fall and spring intersession breaks.
Wertheimer said the growing demand for the charter schools show that there is an appetite for more schools offering specialized programming. “I think it’s a signal to the county to open more boutique and magnet-type schools,” he said. In Colorado, where he used to teach, families have a choice of schools with a special bent, such as science or art or foreign language. “The parents are the consumers so the more options we can provide as public school the better. It empowers parents and when parents are empowered the education system is better.”
Loudoun County’s charter schools are tuition-free, publicly funded schools but operate fairly independently of the county school system. They are run by their own boards of directors that oversee their budgets and their hiring process. The schools are open to any kindergarten through fifth-grade student living in Loudoun.