New School Year; New Schools

New School Year; New Schools

Public school enrollment in Loudoun County more than doubled in the past 10 years, resulting in 19 new schools — or four new schools per year, on average — being built in the last five years alone. Because of this, Wayde Byard, the spokesman for Loudoun Public Schools uses the phrase, “change is usual for us,” to describe what it's like when the county opens a new school. Still, this year is special because two new high schools had never before opened in the county in one year.

Briar Woods High in Ashburn and Freedom High in South Riding will open their doors to students on Aug. 29, bringing the total number of high schools in the county from eight to 10. Freedom will become the first high school in South Riding.

Two new elementary schools, Legacy and Newton-Lee — both in Ashburn, are also starting out in the new school year. A third new elementary school, Pinebrook, is located in Aldie.

Opening two new high schools at one time presents unusual challenges and, consequently, brings about innovative solutions.

The principals of Briar Woods and Freedom high schools agree that the biggest challenge for them has been hiring qualified teachers and coaches, while having to compete for the best candidates with other area schools.

To meet the great demand for personnel — Briar Woods, for example, hired around 60 teachers, educators were recruited not only from Virginia and from all around the country, but also from abroad. Thirty-three foreign teachers — representing 15 different countries — will get three-year work visas to join the ranks of Loudoun County Public Schools staff. In Freedom High School, foreign instructors will teach German, Latin and American Sign Language courses.

THE NEW HIGH SCHOOLS will share some of their personnel in a way that had never before been done in Loudoun schools: telecasting. The telecasting technology employs television cameras to enable a teacher in one of the schools to see, hear and respond to students who will be watching in a classroom at the other school. English, business, math, social science and psychology will be taught this way, by two teachers from Freedom and three from Briar Woods. Edward Starzenski, the principal of Briar Woods High School, says that distance learning labs are an important addition to the school because they can be used for a variety of other purposes, such as to include people from other schools when guest speakers come in.

Briar Woods and Freedom have also adopted an “alternating day schedule” that enables some of the teachers to commute between the two schools. This setup is also beneficial to the teachers themselves, because sometimes there aren’t enough classes for a full-time position at one school, explains Christine Forester, the principal of Freedom High School.

Projected enrollment for the two schools has Briar Woods opening with 449 students and Freedom with 490 students, although both were built to accommodate more than 1,600 pupils. By tradition, new high schools in Loudoun open with grades nine through 11 only, letting seniors graduate from the school where they have already established themselves. Juniors are given the option to stay in their old schools, as long as they provide their own transportation.

Given the low enrollment rates, both parents and students were concerned that not all courses and extra-curricular activities will be offered. Gini Powell, president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at Briar Woods and mother of a Briar Woods sophomore, said that at first her son did not want to leave Stone Bridge High School because he thought that the new school might not offer some upper level courses.

But the principals of Briar Woods and Freedom reassured everyone that all the courses that were offered in the old high schools will be available — in part thanks to telecasting and the alternating day schedule, not forgetting to mention that there are also advantages that come with attending a 500-student school.

“Because we are a small high school and students will live closer to school, they can be more involved,” said Starzenski, “Kids will have a better chance of making the sports teams than at some of the large schools.”

He also noted that small class sizes will give kids a chance to get to know the staff better.

Powell says that her son has had a chance to meet the coaches and the principal and is now optimistic about attending Briar Woods. “But,” she adds, “We still don’t have our kids’ actual schedules, so we don’t know if they’ve got all the courses they wanted.”

POWELL’S SON will have to wait a bit longer to learn what his class schedule will be next year, meanwhile, on the other end of the school children's age spectrum, Legacy Elementary is also preparing to open. The 41 classroom school and its 55 newly hired teachers will welcome 804 students from kindergarten to fifth grade into the new building.

“It's good for the little ones,” says Principal Robert Duckworth, “because they won't be the only ones who are new. Everyone will have a sense of belonging in the new school.”

Long before the buildings went up, the Freedom, Briar Woods, Legacy and Newton-Lee school communities were forming. Teachers started being hired in January. Principals met with parents’ groups. PTA presidents were elected. Students attended summer sports camps where they met some of their future coaches and classmates. Long before the roads to the schools were paved, each of the new schools’ Web sites was up and running, complete with photos documenting the progress in the construction of the school.

And now, finally, almost everything is ready. The school staff is busy hiring a few remaining teachers, moving into new buildings where Internet and telephone service have not yet been set up, unpacking boxes with textbooks that just arrived, distributing supplies between classrooms, and looking forward to the first day of school. No matter what happens, school will open as scheduled Aug. 29 — Loudoun County has never missed an opening.

“We are very excited to get started,” says Starzenski, “… It's absolutely gorgeous. We're really proud of it.”

Enrollment rates in Loudoun County's public schools are projected to continue increasing. By the fall of 2009, they are expected to reach just under 65,000 — up from 44,000 in 2004. The county plans to construct 20 additional schools in the next 10 years.