New School to Open in Old Town

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This fall, the classical education is coming back to Alexandria, but almost half a year and several large hurdles remain before the school can officially open its doors.

The move to establish the Washington Latin School, led by T.R. Ahlstrom and Headmaster Tom Soule, is gearing up for the start to its academic calendar on September 8 at a location yet to be determined in Old Town. The school hopes to attract students with a rigorous, classics-based curriculum and a significantly reduced tuition, due to the current economy.

Students enrolling for the schools first year will pay an annual tuition of $14,000, plus other fees, during the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 school years, roughly $10,000 less than the original sticker price.

Once the schools financial base is strong enough, Ahlstrom and Soule plan to admit students on a partial- or full-scholarship basis the founders are aware that the $24,000 average price tag is not possible for everyone making it financially viable for students from lower-income backgrounds to attend.

My take on this, and T.R. and I have talked about this before, is classics for everyone, Soule said. Far too often that kind of education isnt available to people of all socio-economic backgrounds.

Ahlstrom said that the results found at the Washington Latin Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., one of two public Latin schools that he has helped found in the last seven years Bronx Latin in New York City is the other prove that people of all economic backgrounds can thrive in the demanding, classical setting.

Currently, there are three locations in Old Town being looked at as the schools initial home, Soule and Ahlstrom said.

The educational philosophy at the Washington Latin School in Alexandria is somewhat similar to Ahlstroms previous two endeavors, but is setting out as an independent, privately funded school rather than one receiving public funds.

This is my third school in the last seven years, Ahlstrom said. The other projects were very successful, and we believe this one will be more successful because weve chosen not to do it as a public school, but as an independent, co-educational classical school.

Im not trying to be a basher of public schools, Im a product of them. The fact of the matter is that there is one kind of school in this country for prosperous people and another kind of education for everyone else.

Both Ahlstrom and Soule worked at the Washington Latin School Charter School before leaving in late 2007 to start the independent school venture. Soule said that by then, they had reached a ceiling with what they were able to do educationally at the charter school and wanted to move on to a new situation that would allow for more independence.

According to Soule and Charter School Board meeting minutes, the D.C. Charter School Board disagreed with Ahlstroms proposal to move the school from Northwest D.C. to Penn Quarter and ultimately nixed the idea.

The charter schools current headmaster, Martha Cutts, came on after Ahlstrom and Soule left, but said that in the time since the school has continued to flourish, swelling to 341 students this year from 179 only two years before.

In 2008, the school opened a second campus in D.C. for its eighth and ninth graders, and applications for the upcoming school year are up 74 percent, Cutts said.
While it appears the charter school is established and growing, the Washington Latin School in Alexandria has its own set of hurdles to clear.

Getting students and their families to move away from their current schools could be considered one of the projects biggest obstacles, but Ahlstrom and Soule are confident that the niche theyre trying to fill with the Washington Latin School is one that will not struggle to attract students.
Theres no problem getting kids and families to commit, Ahlstrom said. Every school weve ever done, theres a long line at the door. There will be here, too. The real challenge is funding without getting public money.

Donna Molinari of Alexandria Country Day School said that the Latin School is starting in much the same way that ACDS did in the 1980s, and that based on the differences in curriculum the new school probably would not affect its enrollment too much.

I think they have their reputation behind them to help propel them forward, and its a curriculum thats been around for a while, and that will help them, Molinari said. Of course, the hurdles are those that all new schools face, and are affected even more so in a tough economic climate.
During a March 17 public meeting at Charles Beatley Library, Ahlstrom dove into some of the financing theyre looking for with the new school.

Aside from tuition for the students enrolling in the first year fifth grade, sixth grade and seventh grade only the school is looking for 10 founding families, each of whom would pay $100,000 in the first year, covering the childs tuition through graduation.
In addition, the school is looking for 12 individuals or corporations to contribute $200,000 each over the next five years in order to solidify the schools financial base.

Is it hard work? Yes. Is it more difficult because of this economy? Of course, Ahlstrom said. Weve asked the question, How can we turn this negative economy in a positive thing? And I think weve done that.

The plan is to add a new higher and lower grade each year, but for the first year the school is hoping to draw about 50 students, enough for a single cohort of fifth, sixth and seventh grade students.

Alexandria City Public Schools, experiencing its own enrollment increase, are not expecting the new school to affect what they do to any great extent, but are eager to see what comes about, Director of Communications Amy Carlini said.

Well have to wait and see how it works out, Carlini said. Its going to be interesting to see what happens.

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