Never mind the chalkboards from 1928 and the faculty lunchroom that doubles as a library. Laurie Woulfe has been teaching at Aldie Elementary School for 20 years, and she's not leaving.
With a class of only 16 fifth-graders, she has time for each one, each day. Parents slip in and out of her room daily, volunteering to help as they watch their children learn. The school of 107 students, Woulfe said, exudes "a feeling of family."
"I know every child in the building and their parents, and I know that every year," she said.
This level of intimacy is unheard of in most Washington area schools. In western Loudoun County, it's the norm. Aldie is one of nine elementary schools there with an enrollment below 300, providing an atmosphere that parents and educators crave for young children.
But the schools, some of which are 80 years old, are endangered by the county's rapid growth rate. Elementary school enrollment in western Loudoun is projected to increase by 66 percent over the next few years, based on residential development already approved by the county Planning Commission.
Some Loudoun school administrators and parents say it is time to consider consolidating the small campuses into new schools equipped to handle as many as 850 students. It is the most cost-effective way to handle the growth, and many of the schools have no room to expand anyway, they argue.
"We've outgrown the old schools," said Sam C. Adamo, director of planning and legislative services for the 42,000-student district. "We're anticipating more students than those schools can hold."
In small schools, Adamo said, "You have far fewer kids, but you still have all of the same support services that a school needs. If you have a combined school, then you don't need all that."
Many residents in the western reaches of the county, however, are fierce protectors of their neighborhood campuses. They want them renovated and, where possible, expanded. But none of the schools should be closed, and no school should have more than 450 to 600 students, they say.
No matter how old they may be, the small schools are a reminder of Loudoun's small-town feel. And parents champion the small class size and the close interaction between students and staff.
"You go into Lucketts School, you can tell they have a real pulse on all the kids," said Beth Halley, whose daughter is a fourth-grader at the 166-student school. "The school has such an identity there, and the kids get such attention."
Proposals to close schools have been rare in the Washington area outside of the District, which closed several schools two years ago because of shrinking enrollment. Most suburban districts, rather than shutting down buildings, are scrambling to build more schools as their student populations swell.
The small schools in western Loudoun range in age from 26 to 87 years old and serve old farming communities that for decades had a stable population. The current debate involves the fate of eight elementary schools: Aldie, Banneker, Hamilton, Hillsboro, Lincoln, Lucketts, Middleburg and Waterford. A ninth small school in the area, Round Hill Elementary, is closing, and its replacement, a building with a capacity of 650 students, will open nearby in August.
Twice in the last 20 years, the Loudoun School Board appointed a committee to look at the future of the small schools, and both times area residents blocked attempts to close them.
But the coming wave of development led the board to appoint another study committee last year. The panel, made up of parents and other school activists from western Loudoun, will issue its recommendations next month.
The committee itself has been divided on the issue of whether to close any of the schools. Last week, it decided to recommend an immediate assessment of all older schools in the area to find out whether they could accommodate an influx of students, how cost-efficient they are to operate and whether instruction is compromised by their cramped quarters.
"This is an emotional issue," said Ed Higgins, a co-chairman of the Rural Loudoun Schools Study Committee and a parent
of two Banneker students. "Personally, I believe that the committee is heading toward bigger schools, and the time has come for decisions to be made [about] aging schools that can't be expanded any further."
Proponents of consolidation say that keeping all the schools open is a luxury the county cannot afford as it struggles to keep pace with its enrollment surge.
According to one proposal the committee studied, putting students from Aldie, Banneker and Middleburg elementary schools into one new building would reduce operating costs from $6,909 per pupil to $4,879. The combined school would need only one principal and one custodian. In addition to the personnel savings, maintenance expenses would be lower because of the new infrastructure.
Some parents say the schools' cozy atmosphere doesn't make up for the problems created by their age. At Banneker Elementary, for example, recent well-water problems forced students to use plastic utensils and staff to wash dishes with bottled water.
"I'm all for these small, neighborhood schools," said Cynthia Rinek, president of the Parent Teacher Organization at Banneker. "On the other hand, I'm looking at a building that's falling down around me."
She is not averse to sending her son to a bigger, regional school, she said, although she thinks her views are not shared by most other parents in western Loudoun.
Few parents complain about space constraints at Aldie, Principal Margaret K. Curley said. Although the school's enrollment is below its official capacity of 150, it lacks many of the amenities found in newer buildings. Art and music classes are taught behind the auditorium stage, and the auditorium is also a cafeteria and a gymnasium. The school has no room to expand beyond one or two portable classrooms.
"It's a definite concern that you don't have the space for music, art and PE," said Carol Taylor, whose daughter attends Aldie's only kindergarten class. "But you try to strike a balance between that and institutionalization."
Lynn Christensen, who has two children at Banneker, said she has seen the new sprawling elementary campuses in eastern Loudoun, and she's not in awe. She wouldn't trade small class sizes and a family-like atmosphere for a big, modern building.
"I don't feel jealous," she said. "I don't feel like I'm missing something."
School Board member Harry F. Holsinger (Blue Ridge), whose district is in western Loudoun, said he opposes closing or consolidating any existing schools, despite the space constraints and higher costs associated with them.
But board Chairman Joseph W. Vogric (Dulles) said each school should be analyzed individually. He noted that Round Hill residents initially wanted an addition to their school, which was built in 1911, but the board decided it was more cost-effective to build a new, bigger campus.
"We have to look at it on a case-by-case basis," he said.
Vogric, who represents a growing area in eastern Loudoun, said his constituents have a different point of view on new school construction.
"There we can't seem to build schools fast enough or big enough," he said.
CAPTION: Children leave Aldie Elementary, which has 107 students, at the end of the day. Some Loudoun officials are considering merging small schools.
CAPTION: Andre Harris, a second-grader, works on a project in Sarah Tice's art class at Aldie.
CAPTION: Aaron Orrison, 6, tosses a ball during a beach party, which was earned by Aldie students by reading a certain number of books. The small school has "a feeling of family," one teacher said.