In the century-old brick building in the heart of Middleburg, new educators are preparing a new curriculum, classrooms are being creatively reinvented and parent volunteers are speeding through to-do checklists as the big day approaches: On Aug. 4, the Middleburg Community Charter School will open its doors for its inaugural year as Northern Virginia’s first charter school.
The school officially took over the property formerly known as Middleburg Elementary in late June, a final step in the transformation of the facility into a public charter program. Middleburg Elementary, which served about 60 students, was among a group of small, historic schools in Loudoun that was repeatedly threatened with possible closure during annual school budget deliberations. In its second life as a charter program, the school will welcome next month about 120 students — double its initial enrollment goal.
Principal Barbara Smith said the faculty and parents in the school community have already been hard at work preparing for the launch of a school that will focus on an innovative, hands-on curriculum and strong community involvement.
“As soon as I was hired in mid-May, the first thing I needed to do was try to find the strongest team to get assembled really quickly,” she said. “We’ve had three full Saturdays of professional development already, which was really helpful, because we want our teachers to have ownership over the direction we’re moving — we’re not just going to hand them some sort of script.”
Smith, a veteran educator who previously served as principal at the William E. Doar Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts in Northeast Washington, said a few jobs still need to be filled after more than 160 applications flooded in for the 14 available positions on the faculty, she said. The school will have seven full-time teachers. Smith said she will also teach math.
Most of the teachers who applied “have been dying to do this,” Smith said, referring to the year-round curriculum modeled after the Leonardo da Vinci Project, an interdisciplinary program inspired by the Italian Renaissance polymathic genius and developed at Barcroft Elementary School in Arlington County. Kindergarteners and first- and second-graders will be grouped together in classrooms, as will third-, fourth- and fifth-graders.
“The Da Vinci curriculum is trying to get kids to think for themselves, and not think to the test,” Smith said. “They’re going to be doing some pretty neat things. . . . I’m very excited about the chance to do this, for people to be able to come and see that this approach can work.”
The goal of the curriculum, she said, is to help students go beyond simply memorizing facts and instead encourage them to experience and experiment with the subject of their study.
“We want them to become mathematicians, to become writers,” she said. “Instead of memorizing facts about science, they’re going to emulate what a lot of real scientists do. We need to take them to that level. . . . Without an authentic reason to learn, they’re bored. This is what they need to be engaged. It needs to be purposeful, it needs to have a point.”
Smith said she hopes the charter school will be a “fishbowl for people to come and watch, take notes, give us ideas to help us constantly improve.”
The program is open to all county public school students — Middleburg Community Charter still operates under the Loudoun County Public Schools system, but is partially funded by grants and donations through an endowment — and a majority of the incoming students will be attending the school for the first time.
“We really want this to be a place where the community of people who took the time and learned about education, who did the hard work to get this school together, can meet and collaborate,” Smith said. “It took such hard work for them to do this.”
That hard work will be acknowledged at a ribbon-cutting ceremony planned for the school’s opening, marking a triumphant moment for a community that fought a lengthy battle to save their school from closing.
Last year, as the School Board was faced with reconciling a $16 million funding gap, outgoing School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III and several board members warned that Loudoun’s smallest community schools would not be sustainable in the long run; the facilities would have to pursue alternative plans if they wanted to stay open.
Middleburg Elementary community members took that message to heart, and submitted a formal request to prepare an application for a charter program, with the goal of opening the new school in time for the 2014-2015 school year. The School Board agreed to work with the community to prepare the application.
In March, the board granted conditional approval of the charter program.
Susana Calley, a member of the Middleburg Community Charter School Board, said the parents in the school community have already leapt at the chance to volunteer to support the school, performing a variety of tasks, including mowing the school grounds and managing the school’s Web site.
“The response has been tremendous,” Calley said. “Everyone is bringing their talents and passion to this.”
Parents are required to volunteer at least six hours each quarter, Smith said, but she expects that most will go beyond that minimum.
“We have the most amazing teachers, we have a great community, and everyone is so excited about this new project and a different way of teaching,” she said. “We’re ready to go.”