A Tiny School Battles Powerful Odds

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Middleburg is conspicuously quaint, with a gourmet butcher shop, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor and one very tiny elementary school.

In these times of budget woes, a school with just 85 students could find itself in serious jeopardy. Prince George's County and D.C. school officials are targeting low-enrollment schools for closure to save money.

But Loudoun County school officials, who face twin challenges of budget pressure and the region's fastest-growing enrollment, have drawn an outcry for even broaching the possibility of closing century-old Middleburg Elementary. Residents of the town, population 923, have launched a preemptive fight to save the school, which serves students through fifth grade.

"It's a jewel in our crown here," said Middleburg Mayor Betsy Davis, who has spent her life in the area. "It's more than just numbers. It's a part of our history and a part of our town."

For most of the Loudoun school system, however, it is all about numbers. The county had 56,900 students as of September. Enrollment has surged 40 percent in five years and more than doubled in the past decade. To handle such explosive growth, the school system has perfected the technique of building cookie-cutter schools. Which Middleburg Elementary decidedly is not.

Some local families have sent children there for generations. Others moved to Middleburg for the small class sizes. The building, with a handful of classrooms and just five full-time teachers, still looks like the rural schoolhouse it once was.

By contrast, the newest elementary schools in Loudoun can handle 10 times Middleburg Elementary's enrollment. The school system expects flat revenue in the coming year and 2,500 more students. So officials are considering whether it makes sense to keep open Middleburg Elementary and three other elementary schools in the county's farm-speckled west -- Aldie (115 students), Hillsboro (142) and Lincoln (147). If they closed, students would be routed to newer and perhaps less intimate schools.

But that scenario seems unlikely. Even though closures were listed only as contingencies should school funding drop precipitously, community opposition has been deafening. Residents have lined up to speak at School Board and community meetings, and some county supervisors have spoken out against the idea.

Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III said the issue has dominated budget discussions, even though class sizes countywide could balloon and funding for programs such as summer school, special education and outreach could vanish.

Hatrick said at a meeting last week that he had expected strong community opposition.

"I don't dislike small schools. I didn't go after small schools," Hatrick said. Nevertheless, he said, given tough budget choices that have to be made, he wants to keep school closures as an option to avoid cutting teachers or other classroom programs.

"When we talk about closing small schools," he said, "not a single child will have a diminished education as a result of that closure."

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