A Tiny School Battles Powerful Odds
Middleburg Fights To Save Its 'Jewel' Amid Budget Pressure

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."

He added, presumably in jest, "I'm probably being fire-bombed at home right now."

Some parents say that in education, smaller is better. Amy Birtel-Smith, who sent a son to Middleburg Elementary and has a daughter there, is president of the parent-teacher organization. She said she was told her son was "slow in reading" when he attended a large Prince William County school. Her family moved to Middleburg for the small school, where he ended up in a gifted program after teachers noticed his abilities.

"It's like heaven," she said "I didn't realize it was going to make this much of a difference in our children's lives."

Although the schoolhouse might fit Middleburg's image as a well-preserved example of small-town America, the principal and teachers are cautious about pointing to differences between the school and others in the county.

"There is no difference, really, between the curriculum a third-grader gets in the eastern part of the county and what they get here," said Gary Wilkers, principal of Middleburg Elementary.

Second-grade teacher Nan Parrish praised the school's sense of community.

"There's such a family feel here," she said. "I'm not saying it's more or less than at another school."

The classrooms look a little different, with ceilings that must seem miles high to first-graders, cast-iron radiators that stretch as long as a tank and real chalkboards dominating the front. But math lessons still cover the basics of multiplication and division, reading lessons are standard, and the books in the library, officials said, are the same as anywhere else.

Several School Board members have suggested that administration of the four schools could be more efficient, perhaps by assigning principals to more than one school.

"I think that they need real restructuring if they're going to stay open long term," said board member John Stevens (Potomac). "They cannot be sustained at this level."

Meantime, the Prince George's school board is considering closing a dozen schools to save $10 million a year. The D.C. school system has proposed closing three elementary schools, including 84-student Draper Elementary. It appears to edge out Middleburg Elementary by one student for the title of smallest regular public school in the Washington region.

Next fall, Middleburg Elementary might have the distinction all to itself.

"We desperately are trying to keep it open," Davis said. "It's an amazing little school."

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