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For principals, small elementary schools a place of community, volunteerism

photoTimes-Mirror Staff Photo/Aaron Koepper. Principal Karen Roche talks with students (left to right) Gerardo, Efrain and Garrett during lunch at Middleburg Elementary School.

At a small school, nobody is above cash register duty, not even Aldie and Middleburg elementary schools principal Karen Roche.

At the beginning of December, one the cashiers at the school of 63 students couldn’t make it to work, so Roche took over the register for the day.

“All the kids at Middleburg kept staring at me like, ‘are you sure you’re qualified to do this?’” Roche said.  “I think I can take the money, I think I’m qualified.”’

With dual principal-ship comes direct responsibility over special education, standardized testing, discipline and parent meetings. There are no assistant principals.

The combined population of Roche’s two schools – 203 –  is less than half of many in the eastern half of the county.

At Lincoln and Hillsboro elementary schools, with populations of 65 and 138 students, respectively, Principal David Michener faces much the same situation.

The two principals find ways to divide up their weeks to spend equal time in each school.

Last week, Michener spent his mornings Monday through Wednesday at Hillsboro and his afternoons at Lincoln. Thursday he spent his whole day at Lincoln and Friday he spent the entire day at Hillsboro.

“You have to be organized no matter what you do,” Michener said.

With low enrollment comes small class sizes and small grade sizes, the latter of which are so small two grades can fit comfortably into a single classroom.

At Middleburg, there are 20 students in a combined third and fourth grade class, which has one teacher and one teaching assistant.

If divided in half, these classrooms would be too small to conduct group activities. It’s hard to have reading circles if each circle is only two students each.

The benefits of the small classrooms and the feeling of a community school go beyond more than time with teachers.

Roche said she gets the opportunity to interact with the majority of her students. She’ll bring extra condiments to them during lunch hours and open up the library for them when they need a book.

The four schools serve as the social centers for their students – who many lives miles apart from their neighbors and don’t have a daycare program to go to.

“They have 10 miles to go to somebody’s house to play,” Roche said. “The school is the social mecca.”

The role of the schools at the center brings in parents and volunteerism among the teachers.

Unlike eastern Loudoun, where attendance boundaries have shifted for most of recent memory, the four schools’ population doesn’t change and most students went to the same school as their siblings.

“The biggest advantage is not only do you know every student, you know their siblings, you know their parents, oftentimes you know their grandparents,” Roche said.

Michener said he was greatly inspired by the volunteerism of teachers at both of his schools, saying they make a huge difference in how well the school is run.

At Lincoln, school nurse Patti Eliot helps run a math challenge contest for the students every two weeks.

Holly Lambert, the Hillsboro’s physical education teacher, has a running club before school starts from 7:40 to 7:50 a.m.

Randy Morgan, who teaches third and fourth grade at Hillsboro, has seven third-graders and 12 fourth-graders, said the school’s reputation as a community center was true.

“Everyone here knows everyone,” Morgan said. “It’s one big family.”

The students in his class are working on recording video descriptions for each book in the school’s library to be uploaded online.

After they are, a student will be able to scan a QR code on the back of the book, which will link to its review online.

Michener has been principal at Hillsboro since 2004 and principal at Lincoln since 2009.

Roche has been principal at Aldie since 2009 and principal at Middleburg since 2010. In January, she’ll leave the two schools for Moorefield Station Elementary School, which will open in August.

“I’m excited to start a new adventure. It’s very bittersweet because I love Aldie and Middleburg,” Roche said. “But I think when you get comfortable and settled in that means it might be time for something new.”

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