Loudoun school officials consider future of Middleburg Elementary

August 21, 2013

Loudoun County school officials will determine the future of one of the county’s oldest and smallest schools in the coming months, as they review an application that seeks to convert 101 year-old Middleburg Elementary into a public charter school program.

The school, which serves only about 60 students, has repeatedly been a target for possible closing during annual school budget discussions. This year, those warnings became more direct: As the School Board reconciled its budget in March and cut $16 million to adjust for reduced county funding, board members and School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III said the cost of continuing to operate several small schools in western Loudoun communities would probably no longer be sustainable.

But a group of parents has made it clear that they don’t intend to see Middleburg Elementary closed without a fight, and they have worked for months to save it by turning it into a public charter school.

Last week, Middleburg Elementary became the first school in Loudoun to formally present an application for a charter program since a new state law went into effect last month saying that charter applications initiated by a local school board do not need to first undergo review by the state Board of Education. Charter applications that are proposed independently of a county school board still must seek state approval first.

In the wake of that development, Middleburg Elementary supporters decided to approach the Loudoun School Board to see whether county-level officials would be willing to partner with them on the charter application.

If the application ultimately proves successful at the county and state level, Middleburg Elementary would be the first school in Loudoun to successfully convert to a charter program.

Last week, Middleburg Elementary representatives said they hoped that their efforts might blaze a trail to help other threatened smaller schools to avoid being closed.

Approval of the application would “ensure a successful community school in Middleburg . . . and will serve as a model that can be replicated by other small schools in western Loudoun County,” said Teri Domanski, one of the parents listed on the application.

“What an impact you could have on the future, not only for Middleburg but for Loudoun County schools in general,” Domanski said.

The application envisions classrooms that would accommodate a range of ages. Children in kindergarten through second grade would be grouped together, as would students in third through fifth grades. The school would also offer specialized instruction, with reading and math specialists who would work with students across all age groups.

The proposed curriculum, which the applicants refer to as “integrated thematic instruction,” would organize all academic subjects around a core topic, theme or project, a model inspired by Barcroft Elementary School in Arlington County, Middleburg Elementary PTO President Janelle Stewart said.

Barcroft Elementary organizes its academic program around the theme of Leonardo da Vinci, Stewart said, because of da Vinci’s curiosity and skills in the arts, sciences, history and literature.

The proposed charter program would also offer a longer school day, a full-day kindergarten program and an after-school program that would integrate parks and recreation department programs and facilitate student volunteering, tutoring, clubs and sports, the application said.

If the application is approved, Middleburg Elementary would continue to operate under the county public school system but would also be eligible to have community donations and grants — contributed through a nonprofit organization — account for about 10 percent of its operating cost.

Several board members indicated last week that they would be open to working with the Middleburg Elementary applicants. Before they can, the board must adopt a new policy to account for the change in state law and establish a procedure to determine whether the board would initiate a charter application. Such a process would include review by school staff members and a board committee before the application went to the full School Board for a final vote.

The School Board is expected to address the charter application at its Sept. 10 meeting, when members will decide whether to initiate the request for the charter school application or ask the applicants to initiate the request through the state, said Wayde Byard, Loudoun schools spokesman.

Middleburg Elementary parents have said that they hope to have their application approved in time to launch a charter program for the 2014-15 school year.

Caitlin Gibson is a local news and features writer for The Washington Post.
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