By Mike and Joy Conway
While we have always remained open to any options that might be in the best interests of our children, we never actually planned to send our oldest daughter, Sofia, to private school. Her experience at our local public middle school changed that.
Like many local students, Sofia is smart. She has scored at or near the top of every standardized test or assessment Loudoun County has given. But beyond that, she is profoundly intellectually curious – she reads, learns and asks questions far beyond her years – and as a result, she frequently expressed boredom with the curriculum at her elementary school.
Our first sign of concern came during a conference with her sixth grade teachers. They were effusive in their praise for our daughter, but one of her teachers made an offhand remark about Sofia “helping the slower students” in her class – basically taking it upon herself to bring struggling students up to speed in an honors-level course. Her teacher was impressed and grateful, but we became concerned. If even honors-level courses failed to challenge our daughter, where could she go next?
Loudoun County’s public school system is excellent – one of the best in the country. But public schools are largely set up to do one thing – transport as many kids as possible into adulthood. Everything our schools do is designed to maximize the number of children who achieve a minimum level of competency. Kids who fall outside of the norm in every direction – the gifted, the behaviorally-challenged, those with learning disabilities – tend to be overlooked. A school system with 70,000 students simply can’t be all things to all learners, no matter how much concerned parents may stomp their feet and gnash their teeth. That’s not to say foot-stomping is not in order, at times. But ultimately, as parents, you make decisions in your child’s best interest, whereas the public school system will try to make decisions in every child’s best interests.
We approached Loudoun School for the Gifted (LSG) at the tail end of Sofia’s sixth grade year. We had no plans to enroll her, but faced with Sofia’s declining enthusiasm for school and recent tendency toward social withdrawal, we felt we needed to at least look at other options. It was an odd setup, with small classrooms around a central area scattered with book bags and lots of chatter—but we found ourselves struck, immediately, by the obvious excitement of the students.
Deep Sran, the founder, came out of the public schools of Montgomery County. According to his bio he applied to be among the first wave of students in the highly regarded STEM program at Montgomery-Blair High School, one of the earliest experiments in STEM-obsessed magnetism in the area. He completed his four years and did reasonably well, but found himself on the outside looking in when it came to college applications – instead of Harvard, he went to Maryland – and he soon realized that being just another fish in a large pond of exceptional students hurt, rather than helped, his ambitions.
He also began to question the curriculum at Montgomery-Blair itself—yes, he had received the best education to be found in Maryland, but had he really gained from it? Were his courses memorable? Were they exciting? Would he take them again if given the chance?
At Maryland, he began to contemplate what he calls a “beautiful education,” which can best be described as an education centered on experience and interaction. After attending Georgetown Law School, he went to work at a highly regarded charter school in Washington, D.C., and began to refine this notion to create Ideal Schools, a high school which later changed its name to Loudoun School for the Gifted when a middle school program was added. He also helped found Actively Learn, an e-learning company that markets an innovative digital-learning platform to schools and colleges.
At LSG, instead of taking the usual survey courses on history, Sofia has taken classes such as “1492 to 1789: Creation of a New World and Rise of Democracy,” “The History of Justice,” and “Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction.” Instead of the usual English classes, she has taken semester-based courses such as “Truth in Media: Seminar in American Non-Fiction” and “Critical Literary Analysis.” She spent a semester studying Stephen Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” and weeks doing a deep-dive into the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. If this sounds like college-level work, it is; but the school believes, as we do, that if you set a high expectation, kids will frequently meet it.
LSG prides itself on learning outside of the classroom as well. They average about two field trips per month, and each year the high-school students take a trip overseas (recent destinations include Japan, Eastern Europe, China) while the middle-school students explore an area of the United States.
The school is purposefully small. They are expecting between 40 and 50 students this fall, spread from grades six to 12, but are planning to increase enrollment as they move to a new location. Even with the expansion, though, the plans are to keep the pond small, so no big fish get lost.
A quick note about the new location—sometime this year, construction will begin in the heart of Ashburn. My daughter, as part of her “beautiful education” got to work with the architect to design the library. Several other students are involved in a project to restore another building on the property—a historic one-room schoolhouse that was once Ashburn Colored School, built in the 1870s. Beginning this summer, a number of LSG students, including Sofia, have the opportunity to assist a historian with the Edwin Washington Project in archiving and preserving thousands of documents detailing the history of former Loudoun County schools established for African-American children, including Ashburn Colored School.
LSG is not for every family – it fits a certain type of intellectually curious student who learns better in a small environment – but it demonstrates an approach to learning that could benefit every school. Our beautiful girl is now receiving a beautiful education, and we are profoundly grateful for that fact.
Mike Conway is a freelance writer. Joy Conway works in the medical field and will serve as co-president of the LSG Parent Group this coming school year.