Parents hope to save Middleburg Elementary by turning it into a charter


Students file back into class after recess at Middleburg Elementary. Parents worry that the 101-year-old school will be forced to go charter due to low enrollment. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
November 10, 2012

Loudoun County public school enrollment has essentially doubled in the past decade, with the district taking in thousands of new students every year and racing to build new, look-alike buildings to relieve some of the pressure on crowded schools.

But Middleburg Elementary is an anomaly. It’s old. And it’s tiny.

This red brick building topped with a bell tower has been a village school for generations. It hosts 61 students in a district where seven of its elementary schools are packed with more than 1,000 each.

Just about everyone in the building knows everyone else, waiting for a computer is never an issue and children feel comfortable popping into principal Karen Roche’s office to ask almost anything a 5-year-old can think of.

And many parents think the school is doomed. They wonder if, in an era of constant growth and budget pressure, a traditional village schoolhouse such as this one can survive.


Middleburg Elementary School in 1911, when it opened. (Courtesy of Loudoun County Public Schools)

The fear of the school getting shut down — whether that is just rumor or an imminent threat — has parents rallying to save it. They don’t want to lose its history, its charm and its nurturing, community feel; they don’t want to be like eastern Loudoun County, where district lines change frequently to accommodate booming new subdivisions.

“It comes up every year when budget time comes around,” said school board member Kevin Kuesters. “There are always folks who say how it’s overly expensive and it’s underused.”

There are four small, older schools in rural western Loudoun, including Middleburg. Board members often propose closing and merging them, Kuesters said.

“I think there’s an exurban legend that this will be closed,” said Loudoun County Public Schools spokesman Wayde Byard. “There’s nothing from the administration level that says this will be closed.”

But some parents are still worried that, long term, they need to find other options to keep the school open. At a town hall meeting Monday night, they’ll talk about the latest idea: Turn it into a public charter school.

Students have been coming to Middleburg Elementary School since 1911. In the early years, they sang patriotic songs before studying reading, handwriting, math and the Bible. Many children had to miss class for farm chores. In the winter, some ladies in town brought the children something hot: cocoa or bean or vegetable soup.

The children played outside at recess: drop-the-handkerchief or duck-duck-goose. Fridays closed with an assembly, sometimes listening to the custodian singing hymns on the school’s small stage, said Mary Lee Phelps, who went there as a child, taught there, served as principal for many years and then watched her children and grandchildren attend.

A small red outbuilding, like a one-room schoolhouse, was added. A low-slung wing came in 1960.

That’s now more space than the school needs, and it’s easy to find empty classrooms during the day. There’s lots of part-time help, but only four full-time teachers.

There’s very little turnover. “You come to Middleburg and stay until you retire,” Roche said. “It’s a happy place. . . . It’s a family atmosphere.”

Janelle Stewart, head of the parent-teacher organization, thinks that’s in part because teaching is so rewarding there, with tiny class sizes allowing real closeness with students, and the ability to tailor instruction to individual needs.

Now there are white boards and computers in every classroom, and the student population is no longer overwhelmingly white; it’s 40 percent Hispanic and more than a few are learning English as a second language.

But enrollment stays well below capacity, in part because many families in Middleburg, an affluent town in the midst of Virginia’s horse country, choose private schools for their children, and in part because some parents worry that the school might close. And that raises questions about whether the district is being as efficient as possible with taxpayer dollars.

“Small schools are nice,” Kuesters said. “No doubt if we could afford to run small schools like that, sure, I’d do it. But then we’d have more taxes and . . . the board of supervisors is not going to give us a blank check.”

He’s skeptical, though, that closing it would be a quick fix. The building would be difficult to sell, he said, and transportation costs would go up if students had to be bused farther away. The principal already splits her time between Middleburg and a nearby small elementary school.

Creating a charter wouldn’t be an easy fix, either. The application process is slow — another group is grinding through that in Loudoun right now. But there are donors willing to contribute money, and they hope a math-and-science-focused curriculum would draw more students and keep classrooms full. “That could take it off the chopping block” for good, Stewart said.

“We love our school,” said Caryn Humphrey, a member of the parent-teacher organization. “Our kids love the school. The teachers love this school, and the community really loves this school.”

Susan Svrluga is a Virginia rover for the Washington Post, covering anything and everything that’s happening in the Commonwealth.
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