An idea that has been almost two decades in the making has finally become something more than a concept.
Popping up amid acres of trees and brush between the Dulles Greenway and Sycolin Road is the first tangible sign of a new era for education in Loudoun County. It’s a construction zone. Loudoun builds and opens, on average, two new school buildings a year. But this one is different.
The three-story, 315,000-square-foot building will be home to the Academies of Loudoun. In part, it’s Loudoun County’s answer to Fairfax County’s prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School, which lures about 200 of our county’s top performing students each year. But it’s meant to provide students more options than the TJ model, where students enroll in ninth grade and remain on that track through high school.
The Academies of Loudoun campus will house expanded versions of two of the county’s existing programs: Academy of Science and C.S. Monroe Technology Center, as well as the new magnet program the Academy of Engineering and Technology. That academy, which offers three pathways—engineering, information technology and entrepreneurship—launched this school year and is occupying space at Tuscarora High School until the new campus opens in fall of 2018.
School leaders see 2017 as a key year to prepare each of the three programs to formally launch as one cohesive concept when the Academies campus opens next year.
Academies of Loudoun Principal Tinell Priddy dedicated a lot of her energy this school year creating the curriculum for AET, thinking about how students and educators from all three of the academies will collaborate and spreading the word that each of them will soon have more seats.
Priddy said she visited dozens of Loudoun schools to encourage students to attend community meetings to hear more about the academies, and consider applying. “I went everywhere in order to get families to one of these, and it worked,” she said.
About 1,700 students applied to attend the Academy of Science and AET next school year. “That’s a significant rise over last year,” she added. AET will enroll 150 freshmen and 150 sophomores this fall and the Academy of Science can take just 68.
Last year, 587 rising freshman applied to attend AET in its first year and about 800 students applied for the Academy of Science’s 68 spots. At build out, the Academies will enroll a total of 2,500 students who attend classes there every other day. It will allow the Academy of Science and Monroe Technology Center to double their enrollments.
School Board members have said they want the Academies to provide opportunities for more types of students. For example, students can enroll in AET’s four-year program as freshman or enroll in its two-year program as juniors.
“We want to widen the net to invite more students to take part, without reducing the rigor,” board member Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) said.
The School Board’s adopted budget for next fiscal year shows that establishing AET ahead of the opening of the full Academies of Loudoun is a priority.
It includes money for eight new positions: a director of AET, a secretary and six teachers. Plus, a significant portion of the school system’s increase in operations and maintenance costs will be spent on computers and software for AET teachers and students, who are piloting a digital one-to-one teaching model.
Science Supervisor Odette D. Scovel, one of a handful of school leaders who helped bring the idea of the Academies to fruition over the past 16-plus years, said a lot of the important groundwork is being laid right now. She credited Priddy, a former assistant principal at TJ, for her hard work to develop AET and the larger vision of the Academies.
“The AET’s first year has been incredible. The kids are outstanding, the teachers are outstanding,” Scovel said.
But that’s just a start, she added. The real magic will happen when the students enrolled in the Academy of Engineering and Technology, the Academy of Science, and Monroe Technology Center are researching, creating and learning under the same roof.
“I’m very much looking forward to seeing what happens when we’re all together in one building,” she said, adding that the concept is for the programs to find ways to collaborate and overlap their efforts. “There is so much potential. I think it’ll be incredible.”