Charter School’s Second Year Comes With New Leadership, New Culture

The 112 students enrolled at Middleburg Community Charter School are getting a head start. Today is their first day of the school year, 27 days ahead of the rest of the county’s 75,800 students. The elementary school, which opened a year ago as the first public charter school in Northern Virginia, begins its second academic year with a new principal, several new staff members and, in PTO President Michelle Nicholson’s words, “a new energy and enthusiasm.” David H. Larson was hired as the school’s principal in June, after serving as its interim principal since April. He stepped in following the resignation of the school’s first principal, Barbara Smith, after she was denied re-entry into the United States because of a lapsed visa. Larson takes the helm at the charter school after an inaugural year marred with challenges. Four months after the school opened, the Loudoun County School Board placed it on probation after learning that Principal Smith did not have a Virginia teaching license. The probation was lifted after Smith enrolled in the courses needed to acquire the license. Larson said he wants to hold on to the place’s “community school vibe” while also welcoming the changes that a new leadership style naturally brings. “We want to build and develop a collaborative culture—an environment that is conducive to learning, an environment that is conducive to fun,” he added. “That’s one of the big things I’ve tried to concentrate on.” The school’s curriculum is still based on the Leonardo DaVinci Project, which models learning after the thinking habits of DaVinci, encouraging curiosity, persistence and critical thinking. But Larson and the teachers are also introducing new LEGO robotics and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) programs, as well as new after-school clubs. They also organized bus hubs that will pick students up and drop them off at six different locations throughout the county. That’s a big deal for the dozens of families who were driving their kids to and from school from all over the county last year. There also are four new lead teachers, as well as a new physical education teacher, art teacher and teachers’ assistant. At least three teachers left after the first year, according to school parents. “The new teachers have been working very hard, and we’ve had a lot of professional development,” Larson said. “At this point we have a staff who enjoys and loves to come to work, and that certainly is going to be a reflection on the students as well.” Nicholson said that a year ago she was a little nervous to enroll her then-twin kindergartners in an untested program. But she says it was worth taking the chance. She’s seen them grasp difficult concepts through the school’s project-based lessons. “Now we have a year under our belts, and I can’t wait to go back to see what they’ll learn in first grade,” she added. Nicholson said all the right pieces are in place for a successful school year, including several new families who are eager to be a part of the school culture. “We’re excited,” she said. “The vision and the mission of the school are still the same, but I think we’ll see the attitude and culture start to change within the school.” Middleburg Community Charter School is tuition free and is open to any Loudoun County elementary student. Its kindergarten and first-grade classrooms are full—with waiting lists 22 and 20 students long, respectively—for the 2015-2016 academic year, but space is available for second- through fifth-grade classrooms. The school operates on an extended year calendar, with two-week intersessions in October and March when attendance is optional. Students also are out of school for a two-week winter break and one-week spring break. Learn more at

Daniel Nadler