The Nysmith School for the Gifted began as a humble enterprise--a few dozen children crowded into an abandoned visitors center in Reston.
A decade and a half later, Nysmith has nearly 600 students through eighth grade and regularly turns away scores more who wish to enroll. The school just moved into a light-filled new building in the thick of Herndon's high-tech corridor, hard-wired for computers and supported by some of the higher tuition rates in the region.
The building's cost: $10.5 million. Not bad for a primary school.
As their public school counterparts struggle to provide enough teachers and classrooms for new arrivals, suburban private schools--especially in Northern Virginia--are being overrun. Much of the growth comes from high-technology workers and executives flush with stock options and eager to provide their children with the best education money can buy.
Tuition is skyrocketing, waiting lists are growing and the competition is starting to resemble the jockeying for schools in Manhattan or the District. At one Montessori school in Reston, parents are signing up infants three years in advance.
"The economy is so good in this area that a lot of people have the resources to send kids to private school now," said Larry Lu, an employee of a Northern Virginia Internet firm who began sending his three children to Nysmith this year. "Going to private school is not as easy as you might expect. It's gotten very competitive."
School officials say the coming year is shaping up to be another blockbuster. Applications--due no later than next month at most places--are up as much as 100 percent for some programs, administrators say. Private schools in the Washington area already turn away nearly three of every five applicants, according to the National Association of Independent Schools, and the odds are getting worse.
Median tuition rates at nonparochial private schools are rising at two to three times the rate of inflation, now approaching a median of $13,000 a year for the highest grades. And many private schools on both sides of the Potomac are dusting off shelved plans for expansion and launching fund-raising campaigns to tap into the newly created wealth of the technology economy.
But the clearest indication of the high-tech economy's effect on education can be seen in the number of new, computer-oriented schools such as Nysmith that have sprung up in Northern Virginia.
Take Flint Hill School, a 10-year-old, all-grades school in Oakton that just purchased 30 acres for a new upper-school building. When completed, the additional location will cost $10 million to $15 million. So far this year, applications at the 650-student school are double what they were in 1999.
Ruth Little, the school's admission director, said Flint Hill and its peers consciously woo parents who work in the region's technology sector, in part by highlighting their use of computers and the Internet in the classroom. At Nysmith, computer training begins in the first class--at age 3.
"All these technology firms are coming out here, and fortunately we're poised to serve that area," Little said. "They always want to see the labs, and they always want to make sure we're up-to-date and on the cutting edge. . . . It's not a question of whether we have those kinds of things now. It's an expectation."
At many schools, the fiercest enrollment pressure is coming in lower grades, reflecting the youth of those rising to power at America Online Inc., MCI WorldCom and other area tech companies. In the Herndon-Reston area, for example, parents had two Montessori elementary schools to choose from five years ago; now they have seven.
Eileen Dowds Minarik, founder and principal of the Sunset Hills Montessori Children's House in Reston, said a large portion of her school's 96 students have parents who work for AOL or other dot.coms in the area. That's one reason that Minarik's school has a limited number of computers, despite the traditional reluctance of Montessori programs to use them.
Dozens more children are turned away from Sunset Hills for lack of space. As a result, several parents have gone so far as to enroll their infants and toddlers for preschool--two and three years ahead of time.
"It's amazing--parents' getting in the queue with their babies!" Minarik said. "I am not aware of any school that doesn't have a significant waiting list. . . . All these new tech people are driving the growth, and we're all just trying to keep up."
Anthony Nuti, a computer network engineer from Centreville, is in the process of returning his three children to Nysmith after a brief sojourn in the public schools for financial reasons. But unlike five years ago, when his oldest son first enrolled, getting back in has taken patience. After securing a spot for his oldest son, Nuti finally nabbed an opening two weeks ago for his other son. His 8-year-old daughter is still on a waiting list.
Meanwhile, prices have gone through the roof. Five years ago, Nuti said, it cost about $9,000 to enroll his son. The same child today would pay about $12,000, and those in the upper grades pay more than $14,000, school officials said.
"Anyone coming in now is going to have to deal with a very high tuition rate," said Nuti, who said he pays less because he is a returning parent. "There is incredible competition."
Like his peers who have children at other private schools, Nuti was drawn to Nysmith largely because of rigorous academics. From kindergarten on, children proceed to different teachers for different subjects. There are two teachers in every classroom, many of them certified for college-level instruction.
But there is another, equally strong allure: Nysmith is devoted to new technologies and new methods of teaching. No ivy clings to its new brick-and-glass walls.
Nicole Mitter, 11, transferred to Nysmith from the well-respected Congressional School in the Falls Church area when she was in the first grade. Computer consultant Eva Mitter said she and her daughter chose Nysmith because it is less traditional.
"Congressional was a nice school, but it was very old-fashioned," Eva Mitter said. "It was like, 'We have our boundaries, and we'll stick to those boundaries no matter what.' Nysmith has a different approach."
Carole Nysmith, a longtime teacher of gifted students in California and Fairfax County, started the school 16 years ago with three rented rooms and 55 students from kindergarten through second grade. Enrollment has grown to 553 students from preschool to grade eight. There are no plans for an upper school yet.
"We're really a science and technology school at heart, and I have no doubt that has helped us with the new economy," said Nysmith, whose son, Kenneth, runs the school's business operations. "It used to be you struggled to fill all your slots. Now you have to sit down and decide who will best fit into the program. It's a nice challenge to have."
CAPTION: Mary Currier, a Nysmith School teacher, and her students, including Adam Gillman, 5, left, play a rhyming game.
CAPTION: Alex Nysmith, 5, right, son of Nysmith School official Kenneth Nysmith, and Brandon Lee, 5, work on computers at the high-tech school in Reston.
CAPTION: Third-grader Michelle Lonnquist, 9, works on one of the many computers at Nysmith School.