Leesburg mother leads effort to launch first musical-theater magnet in Loudoun


Skating trainer Wendy Marco, who owns the company ColdRush Hockey. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

Loudoun County has magnet programs for teens who aspire to be mathematicians or chemists or mechanics, but Wendy Marco of Leesburg was frustrated to find there were no advanced programs that could help her 10th-grade daughter, who dreams of a life on stage.

So she decided to create one herself.

Four months and hundreds of hours of research and organizing later, her vision of a musical-theater magnet is becoming a reality. The Loudoun School Board in late February approved a pilot magnet program that she spearheaded. It’s scheduled to start next fall at Heritage High School.

Sharon Ackerman, assistant superintendent for instruction for Loudoun County Public Schools, said she couldn’t remember another time in her more than four decades with the school system that an individual-led effort was so successful.

“This was unique, particularly [considering] the speed with which it took off,” she said.

As many as 32 juniors and seniors will be selected to attend the Musical Theatre Academy every other day for courses in acting, dance and vocal performance. The magnet is similar in structure to programs at the Academy of Science or C.S. Monroe Technology Center.

A former competitive figure skater, Marco is a skating coach for hockey players. Many of her younger students have gone on to play professionally or compete in the Olympics, and she understands how pivotal the teenage years can be in determining how far they will go.

“As a coach, you learn first-hand the importance of setting high expectations and training with other people that are as good or better than you,” she said.

As a mother, she has sought out opportunities to help her daughters be “as good as they wanted to be” in their chosen fields. For her older daughter, that meant extra voice and dancing lessons and workshops and training clinics in New York and the District.

When her daughter was in middle school, Marco found there were few opportunities for students in that age group to be in plays, so she launched a community performance group for them.

As they looked ahead to college, Marco talked to admissions officers and came to the conclusion that her daughter would be at a disadvantage when it came time to apply for the highly competitive, college-level performing arts programs without the springboard of a specialized arts academy.

Such programs have sprouted up across the country. And Marco found that Loudoun was the only large school district in the state that did not have an advanced arts academy.

She was lamenting to a friend about the disparity, she recalled, when her friend said, “You are a pit bull. Why don’t you do something about it?”

That was how it started.

“I realized how things work and who makes decisions and how,” she said. She met with school board members and music teachers and talked to leaders of other magnet schools in Loudoun and elsewhere. She got advice from the curriculum and instruction staff, and she began to develop a blueprint for a magnet program in Loudoun.

She found a high school that had extra capacity and a popular drama teacher, and she got buy in from the teacher and the principal to host the academy.

She took a crash course in social media, then developed a following on Facebook and Twitter and got hundreds of signatures for an online petition.

“I tried to put together a proposal that would be difficult to object to,” she said.

It worked.

She presented her plan to a receptive school board at the end of January.

For the board, the proposal had a winning combination: It was well researched and potentially cheap. Affordability was crucial, considering tense budget negotiations underway with the Board of Supervisors.

At the board’s request, school system staff developed a feasibility study in just three weeks that filled in some extra details, including the estimated price tag, and earned its recommendation for approval.

The program is expected to cost just under $50,000 in the first year and less in the two years that follow. It uses mostly existing facilities and staff. The school system will pay for transportation, some extra equipment and a few theater professionals to work part time.

Before the final vote, Marco assembled a chorus line of harmonizing students to perform a song from the musical “Newsies.”

“Open the gates and seize the day!” they sang.

The board gave them a standing ovation, then approved the plan 7 to 2.

Marco hopes to use the model to create other magnet schools in the arts and humanities and to work toward a stand-alone Academy for the Arts in the county.

“This opens the door for so many kids in the arts,” she said.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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