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Hillsboro Charter Academy prepares for its first school year

Megan Tucker, Hillsboro Charter Academy’s STEAM specialist, gifted coordinator and tech resource teacher sets us the school’s new innovation lab. Times-Mirror/Hannah Dellinger
Two and a half years after the Loudoun County School Board considered closing Hillsboro Elementary School to cut budget costs, the school is reopening with a new name and a new philosophy.

Hillsboro Charter Academy will begin its first day of classes on Aug. 29 with a focus on STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Mathematics) education and project-based learning. Though the school is still a part of LCPS, the Charter will offer an education that differs from the traditional public elementary school model in many ways.

Every student will have individualized learning plans and instruction differentiated to their needs, said Trisha Ybarra-Peters, the charter’s first principal.

“We're delivering instruction at a very high-end and then we're differentiating as needed so all kids get the opportunity to have a lesson that is more along the gifted model,” said Ybarra-Peters. “We give the kids the supports they need to get the same place in their own way, so it’s not only the gifted kids getting those opportunities.”

This week Ybarra-Peters is meeting with each student’s parents to talk about their specific goals for their children. As a team, the parents will work with the principal to craft student learning plans for their children.

“Traditionally, with a student that has an IEP [Individualized Education Program] you take that time as a team to talk about what that child needs,” said Ybarra-Peters. “We're doing that for all kids.”

Teachers will meet with parents at least five times during the school year to check in and discuss their children’s progress on their learning plans. The teachers will not only discuss the academic development of the children, but also their social, emotional and behavioral development.

In most public schools, opportunities for project-based learning come a few times a semester. Students at HCA will have time set aside for project-based learning every school day.

Students will learn about concepts and theories that meet state Standards of Learning (SOL) requirements during the first part of the school day. In the afternoons the students will put their morning lessons to practical use with a project that shows real-life applications for the information they just learned.

Students will work on their projects in a space called the “Innovation Lab.” The room is set up with computers, a maker space with building and art supplies and an area with all kinds of tech gadgets, including materials to build robotics and rockets.

“The whole goal of this space is to get them excited and to get their natural curiosities going,” said Megan Tucker, the school’s STEAM specialist, gifted coordinator and tech resource teacher.

Tucker helped open an aerospace charter school in California, has led national workshops on aviation and has flown with NASA.

The teacher moved from California to be a part of HCA because she says the STEAM focus of the school is something new and exciting that isn’t offered many other places.

“Science and art don't have to be two separate parts of the brain,” she said. “They can actually play together quite nicely and make something quite beautiful.”

All of the school’s teachers will implement music and art in their daily lesson plans to help students tackle new topics.

“If they're learning about photosynthesis, I can come into the classroom with a song about the process so when they're doing their SOLs and they can't remember it, they can think back to the song,” said Miranda Beard, HCA’s music teacher. “Or kinesthetically they can think about the instrument they were playing and that will remind them of the song.”

The new school is Loudoun County’s second venture into charter education. Middleburg Community Charter School, the first charter in the county, experienced severe set backs in its first year.

According to the Loudoun Education Association, all but one teacher requested to leave the school in 2015 because there wasn’t a curriculum prepared and the school’s schedule kept changing. On top of that, the charter’s principal, Barbara Smith, resigned in April 2015 after she was denied re-entry to the US from Canada because her visa wasn’t in order.

The teachers who were involved in writing HCA’s charter say MCC’s failure didn’t hold them back.

“It definitely did not make us hesitate,” said Tiffany Miller, who’s been teaching at Hillsboro for five years and helped write the charter. “If anything it made us push harder forward.”

Because of what the teachers saw happen to MCC, they knew it was paramount to have a solid curriculum in place and the right staff to run the school, said Miller.

“It definitely helped us make sure we had certain questions answered and we were prepared to have certain things in place for when we opened our doors,” she said.

The idea to create a charter came shortly after the School Board began discussing the possibility of shutting down several small Western Loudoun elementary schools in April 2014 to save about $2 million in the division’s budget.

Parents and community members wanted to maintain the community school that many generations of the town had attended. The group’s first request to create a charter in the building was denied by the School Board.

“Then the parents came to us as teachers and asked, 'If you could have any teaching environment you wanted what would that be?'” said Miller. “That's where we started. We built it from the ground up.”

The board officially approved the charter in June 2015. They required 12 months of planning for the charter before it opened its doors.

Now that the school is a reality, parents are pitching in any way they can, said Kimberly Strassel, PTA president for the new charter. They are donating classroom material, furniture, painting walls and donating funding.

“This truly is a community-based school,” said Strassel. “The PTA has always played a really central role, even when it was still Hillsboro Elementary School. We're taking the lead in fund raising this year.”

The school is also partnering with local businesses, farms and restaurants in a variety of ways. The cafeteria will server healthy farm-to-table options provided by neighboring farms.

The charter is offering full-day kindergarten and eventually will begin an afterschool program. The school’s day is an extra 30 minutes longer than other LCPS elementary schools.

So far there are 121 students signed up to attend the charter’s first year of classes. According to Ybarra-Peters, students from as far as Ashburn and Sterling are commuting to the school.

There is still room for more students in second, fourth and fifth grades, said Ybarra-Peters. No tuition is necessary to attend; the only requirement to get in is being a registered LCPS student.

For more information, visit hillsborocharter.org.


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