Vance: Diamonds in the Rough

By Roger Vance

Sometimes we see liabilities when in fact we are looking at real assets. We see something that is old and perhaps worn around the edges as old-fashioned, out of step, not up to snuff, inefficient and thus ineffective. We believe that something new and bigger must be, will be, better. When this happens, we often don’t see the treasures hidden in plain view.

Western Loudoun is studded with some real, overlooked gems in the form of small rural elementary schools and, nearly a predictable as the seasons, we are forced to engage in a tiresome process of considering them for disposal, for pulling the plug, for letting them slip away out of their supposed “inefficient” existence.

Fortunately, the latest round of discussions focused on the fate of the handful of small rural schools left in western Loudoun has been put to bed, temporarily. This round was embodied by the effort by some Loudoun School Board members to craft a policy that would guide in the proposing and execution of closing a school. While setting clear parameters and a process may, on its face, have some merit, the attempt was interpreted by most as establishing an “objective” framework for moving forward with the long-sought shut down of the county’s smallest schools.

Just as predictable, these initiatives were met with vociferous opposition from the communities served by these schools. But, the debate does bring to the fore a chance to consider the harm their closures would bring—and conversely the opportunities offered by supporting and, indeed, investing and polishing these multi-faceted jewels.

Loudoun County School Board manages a billion-dollar budget for one of the fastest growing—Virginia’s third largest—school divisions, with more than 80,000 students in 91 schools. Keeping up with growth while maintaining excellence, diversity and innovation in its educational offerings is one of the Board’s steepest challenges. At the same time, avoiding the image as another bureaucratic monolith that abhors straying outside the lines and sees challenges to orthodoxy as a threat, should be one of its guiding principles.

One way to do this would be to redirect the energy applied toward closing small schools by embracing, investing and learning from them. The board should lead the celebration of their past and present as cultural and civic cornerstones of communities that were here long before the massive influx that has created a new Loudoun. This county’s vaunted wealth is derived from not only from its openness to the diversity that comes with change, but also to the diversity that remains with preservation.

Retaining western Loudoun’s rural character, farmlands and the small towns and communities that stood at their centers is key to the future quality of life of all who will call this their home in the future. And, historically, these small schools have long been the center stone, with the rural communities they serve the bezel setting, providing its anchor and security while also infusing light to create brilliance. These schools remain an essential and defining asset. As Loudoun County Heritage Commission Chairman Robert Pollard aptly wrote, “The Commission regards Loudoun’s rural elementary schools as critical heritage resources that merit careful protection. The rural schools are an integral part of the county’s historic villages, and as such constitute a vital link to Loudoun’s rich but rapidly disappearing social and cultural heritage.”

Loudoun’s small schools have, on a regular basis over the past decades, been the subject of much debate with regard to their “cost efficiency” and the savings that would be achieved by shuttering them and sending their students to the newer schools. Consistently lost in the cold calculations—which are highly debatable—is the impact these small schools have on their students, communities and, if we make the effort to mine them, the value they can provide to the larger system itself.

Within the past five years, two of the schools hearing the drumbeat of closure threats for many years, opted to break the cycle. The Middleburg and Hillsboro school families, staff and communities boldly seized the challenging option to become community-run, free, public charter schools. Middleburg Community Charter School led in 2014, followed by Hillsboro Charter Academy in 2016.

Each of these public charters has integrated innovative teaching techniques and curriculum. They continue to serve their immediate communities but have also opened their doors to students from across Loudoun. Each offers models that could be tested and emulated across the system. Both have been successful in fulfilling their missions and both are at or near full capacity with large waiting lists. And each has sustained their place as a radiant jewel in their small community.

In the case of Hillsboro Charter Academy, community management and responsibility for the public charter school has forged a deeper and sustaining bond with the Town and the greater Hillsboro area. At the same time, families from beyond the immediate area have brought new energy and enthusiasm. And the extraordinarily creative, dedicated and talented educators have been unleashed to stretch outside the box. They have opened the doors to the community at large to be partners and active participants in the education of their students. And this jewel’s setting is nestled by the Short Hills, filigreed with farm fields and imbued with the history of the 1874 Old Stone School just steps away. It has been integral to the revitalization of Hillsboro.

There is little doubt the other small schools posses the same potential energy. Just as Loudoun must, for the benefit of the entire county, take active steps to save its heritage farms and encourage innovation and enterprise through its agricultural business incubator, it is time for Loudoun to embrace its trove of small schools as the diamonds in the rough they are.

Roger Vance

Roger Vance is the mayor of Hillsboro. His column, A View From The Gap, is published monthly in Loudoun Now.

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