This is the second article in a three-part series on the new schools Loudoun County will open later this month. Goshen Post Elementary, Willard Intermediate School and the Academies of Loudoun welcome students on the first day of school Aug. 23.
The team at Loudoun County Public Schools recently ordered three huge numbers to hang above students’ lockers at the new Willard Intermediate School. The 6, 7 and 8 stand taller than the tweens that will scurry past them each day to and from class.
Now this week, construction crews will hang the 6 upside down to make it a 9 and keep the 7 in storage for the next two years.
It’s an illustration of local school leaders getting creative to keep up with enrollment growth in the southern end of the county. Willard was initially slated to open as a middle school for sixth- through eighth-graders, but the number of new students moving into the Aldie area meant School Board members had to come up with more seats sooner. So they decided to disperse the area’s secondary students throughout three schools.
When it opens later this month, Willard will operate as an intermediate school for eighth- and ninth-graders for the next two years—hence, the 8 and 9 designating each grades’ lockers. 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 nearby in 2020.
For Willard Principal Jeff Rounsley, that’s meant out-of-the-box thinking to prepare a new school building for 662 eighth-grade students who were expecting to be the oldest kids on campus and 645 ninth-grade students who were eager to start high school.
“Loudoun County opens a lot of schools, but it’s a pretty unique challenge to open an intermediate school,” he said. “You only get one eighth grade year and one ninth grade year, and we want it to be special.”
Rounsley has been meeting monthly with a group of student leaders since last December to prepare. They worked to come up with ways for Willard’s ninth-graders to enjoy some high school experiences while attending the intermediate school.
“I don’t want them to feel like this is a fourth year of middle school for them. I want them to have responsibilities and opportunities that they might have at a high school and make sure they feel welcome at both places,” Rounsley said, referring to Willard and John Champe High School, where many of those students will finish out their high school careers.
Every afternoon, buses will transport freshmen from Willard to John Champe, where they can take participate in sports, clubs, marching band, theater and other afterschool activities. They will also get to take part in homecoming; Rounsley has already booked buses to transport the freshmen to Champe for the big pep rally Oct. 19.
Willard students will also get to experience a few firsts. The school is opening under the digital one-to-one teaching model, which means every student will receive a Chromebook on the first day of classes. Rounsley said that has teachers thinking about ways students can collaborate and learn outside of the four walls of a classroom, and that line of thinking was even carried out in the design of the building. The school includes several open space areas for students to gather to work on projects or just hang out, including a student study lounge with couches and comfy chairs and a big staircase—providing bleacher-style seating—near the front entrance.
“We want to give students spaces where they can work in groups and collaborate outside of the classroom, just like they might in a work setting,” Rounsley said.
The chance to open a new school building and think creatively to manage the challenges that come with an intermediate school is what drew Rounsley to Willard, after working as John Champe’s assistant principal since it opened in 2012.
Throughout the transition, he’s kept in mind that Willard will operate as a traditional middle school in the long run. “We’re really going to open this school twice,” he said. “So we’ll do a teacher retreat again in July 2020, as we kind of reconfigure ourselves.”
Loudoun has some experience working through these challenges. When the student population grew faster than the county could build schools in western Loudoun, Harmony Middle School served as an intermediate school from 2002 to 2010, when Woodgrove High School opened.
School Board member Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) said her two children attended Harmony as freshmen during that time and had a great experience. “They enjoyed being freshmen in a smaller school setting before transitioning to a high school,” she said.
Willard students will get to see their new school during an open house Aug. 21, ahead of the first day of school Aug. 23.