By Leonard Shapiro
For Middleburg Life
When Colley Bell first took over as Head of School at Middleburg Academy three years ago, he posed three questions to his faculty, his students and the board of directors. He said he wanted to know “who are you, where are you going and who’s going with you?”
“As much as they look to the head of school as a change agent,” he said, “it’s really got to be a collective enterprise. I had key people in the school and on the board to push the conversation. And at the end of the day, it was about serving the students. It’s about preparing them for the world they’re going to be living in, and every school is trying to answer what that will be like.”
At Middleburg Academy, Bell inherited a school he firmly believes had several critical ingredients already in place— character, integrity, parent responsibility, and academic excellence, among others. He also made it a point to canvas a number of past graduates to ascertain what they thought was important going forward.
“They all said ‘keep it vigorous, keep expectations very high and push technology,’” Bell said, adding that like many other independent schools, Middleburg Academy is now very much involved in the STEAM approach to educating its 130 students from eighth to 12th grade.
That would be science, technology,
engineering and math, with the A standing for Arts. Bell said it quickly became apparent his students wanted much the same, including more sophisticated computer training, instruction in programming and learning how to use 3-D printers. At the same time, plenty of class time is devoted to art, music, ceramics, literature, writing, language and history, with Bell even teaching an advanced placement history course himself.
“I did not want to do (STEM) just for marketing purposes,” Bell said. “When you look at STEM programs, you only have six percent of public school students in those classes. And we’re told that 80 percent of the opportunities for children in the future
will be STEM-related.”
The school also has
competitive inter-scholastic sports programs. Anyone who tries out for a team makes that team, including fencing and equestrian teams. Within the next 18 months, there will be a riding program centered at renovated stables dating back more than a century, one of only two day schools in Loudoun County with its own stables.
Bell is particularly proud of his highly-credentialed faculty, which he said, “also has humility. They’re allowed to say I might not do this as well as I used to, and they listen to their students. It’s not
that they’re kowtowing, but it is important to listen to them.”
And parents are always a huge part of the equation.
“When we interview students, we probably interview their parents even more robustly,” he said. “We need parents who are really with us. If they’re not on board, we’ve got a problem. We have parents who are sending us their children from as far as 40 minutes away from the school. Our parents know they can trust us.”
Bell and his staff also trust their own student leaders, as well as its board of directors.
“It’s robust,” he said of student
leadership. “They’re involved in everything that goes on here. And what I love about our board is their focus on the quality we have. They let us frame the school in a careful, thoughtful way for the future.”
That future seems limitless. There are now more applicants than spaces in the student body. Classes remain small— perhaps a dozen or less—which allows more individual attention. At some point, the student body might increase to 150, though that might be a stretch for the current physical plant.
And the biggest disciplinary problem? Late homework.
Bell, who grew up in Versailles, Kentucky, has been a teacher and administrator at nine different independent schools over his long career. His specialty has always been to be what he described as “transformative” in reshaping academic programs. He and his wife, Edwina, an administrator at the school, also believe this will be their last stop, if only because, he said, “we just love the Middleburg area.”
Apparently, there is mutual admiration from some very important people involved with Middleburg Academy.
“I had a great compliment when our board chair was sitting in my office and we were just chatting,” Bell said. “At one point, he said ‘we never envisioned the school would be this good, this quickly.’”
Remember those three questions? So far, Colley Bell has provided all the right answers.