A nearly extinct species -- the small rural school -- is going on the endangered species list this fall in Loudoun County. When classes begin Aug. 30, seven elementary schools scattered throughout the county will have fewer than 100 students each, school officials said. The county school board agreed to keep the schools open, but not without some cutbacks. Two grades will be combined in most classes, and the elimination of part-time physical education teachers and library clerks has pressed principals into service as their replacements. Administrators say the cutbacks are expected to save the school system $207,970.
Parents are not happy with the changes; many fear the cutbacks signal the first step toward closing the schools.
"They are after our small schools," said Rebecca Allen, whose 6-year-old son will be one of 66 students at Hillsboro Elementary this fall. "There are some people in eastern Loudoun who are out to close our schools. They say it costs too much, but we don't have the parks and swimming pools they do. We just want our schools."
The school was built in 1966 for 200 students, and for many residents in the quiet town of Hillsboro, it is the heart of the community.
"Why couldn't they leave things alone?" Allen asked. "Every time we talk about these combined classes we get depressed. If it doesn't work, we'll move. Right now we just try not to talk about it much."
Even Hillsboro teachers are worried about balancing two grades in one classroom and adjusting their curriculum to the wider range of ages.
"The two teachers who are going to be teaching combined classes are worried that the age span will be too great," said kindergarten teacher Joan Houk. "We will try to adjust; children are pretty flexible."
Twenty years ago, Hillsboro Principal Darold Hart was a part-time physical education teacher in Middleburg, in addition to his regular duties as a seventh grade instructor. This fall, he will be out on the playground again. And when he finishes his new playground duties, he will find more work in his office, since his secretary will be filling in half-time for the eliminated library aide.
"I'll just say that no one likes it, but everyone considers it necessary," said Hart. "We thought it would come eventually. I think I can finesse it even if it takes overtime to do it."
School Superintendent Robert E. Butt shares Hart's concerns, but said budget constraints left the school system with few options. This year, Loudoun County will operate 32 schools with 13,000 students on a $39 million budget, about $150,000 more than last year. Although state aid increased $830,200 to $9.1 million this fiscal year, federal aid dropped by $421,000 to $938,000.
"To keep these schools open we had to have the most efficient staffing possible," Butt said. "As the economy changes, after this population stagnation, these small schools might fill up. I don't think there will be any backsliding educationally because of the combined classes. We worked to review instructional techniques with the teachers who will be working in these combined classes."
In addition to Hillsboro, the elementary schools targeted for combined classes are: Aldie (75 students), east of Middleburg; Ashburn (58 students), near Sterling; Banneker (85 students), north of Middleburg; Lucketts (96 students), north of Leesburg; Middleburg (88 students), in Middleburg, and Waterford (82 students), in Waterford.
"We have compromised," said one mother. "We have gambled that by allowing them to combine classes they won't go meddling in our affairs."
Loudoun school board chairman William Maykrantz sympathizes: "The school is the life of their community. Nobody wants to close them. The only reason we looked at combining classes and went ahead with it was because of the economy. . . . It is harder to run schools now because citizens don't want their taxes raised to pay for anything."
In the past, the smaller schools generally enjoyed student-teacher ratios as low as 10 to 1, while larger Loudoun schools had 25 students per teacher, administrators said. This year, to equalize staffing, 10 classroom teachers and four physical education instructors were laid off at the seven small schools.
At the same time, 38 teachers at Douglass Elementary in Leesburg were transferred when the school board decided to convert Douglass to a bus warehouse and storage facility. The teachers and students at Douglass were transferred to Catoctin and Leesburg elementary schools, both in Leesburg.
"Right now everything is on hold until the mortgage interest rates go down. There are over 10,000 homes approved to be built in Loudoun County but nobody is buying," said Maykrantz. "The pace of development is not anywhere what it was in the '60s and '70s. In fact, enrollment is expected to be down about 300 to 400, mostly in elementary schools, this fall.
"The housing industry has collapsed," he added. "Everything is tied to the building industry."