Loudoun moves to open N. Virginia’s first charter school


Students file back into class after recess at Middleburg Elementary School in Middleburg, Va., in 2012. Middleburg Elementary parents have described their school as the anchor of the community . (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

The Loudoun County School Board has granted conditional approval for a community-led effort to save a small-town school by turning it into Northern Virginia’s first charter school.

The Middleburg Community Charter School would take the place of a century-old elementary school that has been threatened with closure in recent years as the school system has struggled to balance a tight budget with the cost of rising student enrollment.

“I think this is a great opportunity, and I think it could represent a very good model in resolving very old issues for us,” said School Board Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn). “And perhaps it could pave the way for other schools in the commonwealth . . . to preserve legacy schools.”

Other historic school communities in Loudoun have followed the application’s progress closely, and residents of Hillsboro — another small western Loudoun town — are developing an application to turn their elementary school into a charter school.

Parents of Middleburg Elementary students, as well as families from other small school communities in Loudoun, have consistently defended their schools against the threat of closure during the School Board’s annual budget deliberations. Middleburg Elementary parents have described their school as the anchor of the community and a special learning environment that helps its students excel. Before the vote Tuesday night, Hornberger noted that no one had addressed the board to argue against the school’s charter application.

Although charter schools have opened throughout the District and in other parts of the country, they have been much slower to take hold in Virginia, where there are only six.

Advocates say Virginia’s laws are some of the least favorable to charter schools because they grant local school boards sole authority for approving applications.

The state constitution protects such decision-making at the local level, and many Virginians, particularly in Washington’s high-performing suburban districts, are proud of their public school systems and have not called for change.

The Loudoun School Board turned down an application for a science and information technology charter school last year, citing weaknesses in the curriculum and operational plans. But many board members have been advocates of expanding school choice in the county and worked closely with the Middleburg applicants to make their plan work.

The final approval to proceed with the Middleburg charter school is conditional on the successful negotiation of a contract and a lease agreement for the schoolhouse, board members said. In addition, the program must receive a waiver from the Virginia Board of Education to allow for a modified, year-round school calendar.

To open in August as planned, the new charter school must have at least 50 students enrolled by May 31, public schools staff said.

That shouldn’t be a problem, said Teri Domanski, a member of the Middleburg Elementary charter program committee and president of the Western Loudoun Community Schools Foundation. She said 60 people have filled out forms showing their intent to send their children to the new school.

It will offer a longer school day, full-day kindergarten and an after-school program that integrates parks and recreation department programs.

The school also will have a curriculum that allows students to work together across grade levels and organizes all academic subjects around a core topic, theme or project, a model inspired by Arlington County’s Barcroft Elementary School.

“We are excited, elated and overwhelmed all at the same time,” Domanski said. “We know there’s a lot of work that lies ahead of us, but we feel very good about the relationship that we’ve developed with the administration and the school board, and we don’t think there’s anything we can’t work through to make this a go.”

A lot is slated to happen in the next 30 days, Domanski said. The request for the waiver from the state will be submitted, and the school plans to hire a principal and begin enrolling students.

Domanski said she plans to meet with donors who have pledged to contribute to the Western Loudoun Community Schools Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aims to raise $1 million to establish an endowment for the charter school.

According to recent projections, Domanski said the foundation — along with grants and funds from the school’s parent- teacher organization — would account for about 17 percent of the charter program’s estimated $700,000 operating cost for its first year. The School Board would cover the rest, as the school will receive taxpayer support.

The board’s unanimous vote came at the end of a four-hour meeting that involved an occasionally tense discussion of the financial requirements needed to launch a successful program at the school. Board members sought to find common ground about lingering undecided issues — including an appropriate rate for administrative fees for school system services such as legal counsel and the terms of a prospective lease.

Board members Jennifer Bergel (Catoctin) and Debbie Rose (Algonkian) were absent from the meeting.

Middleburg Elementary, which serves fewer than 50 students, has been among the small schools targeted for possible closing during annual school budget deliberations. Last year, several board members, as well as outgoing Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III, cautioned that the cost of operating Loudoun’s oldest and smallest schools could not be sustained for long.

In August, Middleburg parents submitted a formal request to work with the school board to prepare an application for a charter program, with the hope that it could launch in time for the 2014-2015 school year.

The board agreed in September to partner with the Middleburg Elementary community to prepare the application, allowing the proposal to bypass a preliminary state review that would otherwise be required.

Under the charter agreement, the school will be managed and operated by a committee of parents, teachers, administrators and community sponsors. But the School Board will oversee the school and hold it accountable under the charter school contract and law.

Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.
Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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