Parents and educators are imagining a Loudoun County charter school where lunch is served fresh from a school garden, math and business are taught at a nearby shop and an extended day allows more time for arts and music.
Those leading the effort to convert Middleburg Elementary School to a public charter school as early as 2014 held a barnstorming session Monday night to learn about what local families want in a community school, and how they can draw more students to keep its doors open.
“We called this meeting because we as a PTO feel that it’s time for us to act,” Middleburg Elementary PTO President Janelle Stewart said to the auditorium filled with about 50 parents, teachers and area business leaders. “Becoming a charter school has some amazing possibilities for our kids and the community, and the more we’ve looked into it, the more excited we’ve become.”
The school’s PTO began work on a charter application last summer as a means to save their 59-student, 100-year-old school, which faces frequent threats of closure. But those efforts were sped up three weeks ago after Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick, as well as three Loudoun County School Board members and board Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn), expressed concerns about the small, and costly, student-teacher ratios at both Hillsboro and Middleburg elementary schools.
“I do not support keeping them open,” Jeff Morse (Dulles) said at an April 29 meeting. “I will give them the opportunity to try to get a charter aligned for each of those two schools, but without that charter I do not see them open beyond this year.”
But parents appeared hopeful during Monday’s meeting that if the school is closed, they could re-open it as a public charter school. The application, which is expected to be completed within the next six weeks, will go to the Loudoun County School Board for consideration. Under a law that goes into effect July 1, charter applications will no longer need approval from the Virginia Board of Education, which could speed up the timeline from an application to the first school bell by as much as two months.
If approved as a charter by the local School Board, the school would still operate under the umbrella of Loudoun County Public Schools and would receive most of its funding from the school system. But charter schools can rely more heavily on grants and other community support. They still must meet federal and state education benchmarks, such as the Virginia Standards of Learning, but the curriculum taught to ensure students’ success is up to the charter.
That’s what has those in Middleburg excited.
Kathy jo Shea, owner of Second Chapter Books, said she would love to see mini internships where students can learn marketing and math by helping out in her shop. Others from A Place To Be Music Therapy said they would be open to hosting after-school arts and music programs. Other ideas jotted down on large pieces of paper at Monday’s meeting were full-day kindergarten, critical thinking and character-development courses and lesson plans that incorporate local historical sites, organic farms and businesses.
“Loudoun County is so diverse,” Katie Turner, who has two children at Middleburg Elementary School, said. “We could find someone to partner with us at every level to create a real community school. Not just of kids, but of the entire community.”
School Board member Thomas Reed (At Large) and Vice Chairman Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge), who both attended Monday’s meeting, were quick to offer the parents advice with their application, most of which stemmed from the six-month vetting process with the Loudoun Math & IT Academy. In February, the board ultimately denied that charter request, citing an unclear instructional vision and a lack of community support, among other reasons.
“That’s what excites me about this charter application,” Turgeon told the group. “It is born from a community for the community in which it resides.”
There is no guarantee that Middleburg families will attend the charter school because enrollment must be done on a lottery, but, Turgeon noted, the school has offered open enrollment for several years and it is still short on students.
Reed pointed out another advantage over the Loudoun Math & IT application: “Here you have a physical [building] already in place, and that’s a big plus for you.”
Another thing going for them, which parent Teri Domanski announced, is an endowment. The group set up a nonprofit last year, Western Loudoun County Community Schools Foundation, which is designed to be the funding arm for the Middleburg charter school, as well as to supplement and preserve all other public elementary schools in western Loudoun. Domanski said the group has major donors lined up, and a major fundraising effort will be launched in coming weeks. “People are excited about this because the foundation’s mission is to provide financial resources to local schools in all of western Loudoun, not just Middleburg.”
A chance to get fundraising help for the small Hillsboro Elementary School has offered parents from that community a bit of hope in the past few days. Tauvas Johnson, president of the Hillsboro PTA who attended Monday’s meeting, said she and other parents are just now taking the first steps to draft a charter application for that school.
“We are now,” she said, reacting to the comments from board members to consider closing the school. “Now that we know it could be a charter or toast situation.”