Miller School Plans to Expand, Become K-12 School

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Old Main at Miller School Photo: Kim Kelley-Wagner.

The Miller School of Albemarle, located on 1,600 rolling, wooded acres five miles south of Crozet, is planning a gradual expansion over the next several years to increase its overall enrollment and add K-7th grade instruction to its current 8-12th grade structure. Miller was founded in 1878 thanks to a $1.1 million bequest from businessman and Batesville native Samuel Miller. The school has undergone changes in size and purpose over the years, including a stint as an all-boys military program in the 1950s, and now looks to grow from 240 to 500 students.

Miller’s Head of School, Michael Drude, arrived in 2017 and said the appeal of the school was both historical and forward-looking. “The draw was the opportunity, the campus, the proximity to Charlottesville, the history,” said Drude. “Thomas Edison’s company electrified this building [Old Main] in 1883. We have done a great job in the last several years of leaning into the history to support our mission.” As an example, he referred to the working farm on campus where students cultivate plants and care for goats, chickens, ducks, and a cow.

Michael Drude, Head of School for Miller School of Albemarle. Photo: Lisa Martin.

“Close to 70 kids a week are up on the farm working and growing things,” he said. “It’s a really wonderful hands-on opportunity to learn about the fundamentals of farming, but my biggest takeaway from the experience is that the kids tell me it grounds them. They can sit through AP calculus or AP biology in the afternoon because they had over an hour on the farm and got their hands dirty, just being outside and centering. We want to take full advantage of the 1,100 acres right here on this section of campus and spend as much time as possible being outside in the mountains, the streams, the meadows.”

Miller School of Albemarle plans an expansion including several new structures to the north of its iconic Old Main building.

Miller is four years away from its 150th anniversary—its sesquicentennial. “It was actually 150 years ago this month that the plans for the school were approved by the General Assembly,” said Drude. “So, we are sort of in celebration mode at the moment.” Part of the ongoing celebration may well include elements of the expansion, as the Albemarle Board of Supervisors approved the school’s plans in August of last year.

The plan envisions phases of growth in both the student population and physical structure. Phase 1 will expand the school’s enrollment to 300 and add programming to include K-7th grade students. This step will be accomplished by partnering with Seven Rivers Day School, which currently operates out of the Haden-Hart building on Miller’s campus with about 60 K-7th students. “Working with and taking over the operations of Seven Rivers provides that elementary school element where those kids are doing wonderful things and matriculating into our school,” said Drude.

To update and improve existing facilities on campus, Miller plans to renovate Wayland Hall, a dormitory for female boarding students, and to create a new dorm for male students who currently reside on the first floor of the main administrative building. The school also plans to strengthen its pedestrian pathways and relocate vehicular corridors and parking so that the flow between buildings on campus is one continuous pedestrian thoroughfare. “I see 300 being a perfect number [of students] for us for several years,” said Drude, after which the school would be ready for unhurried growth to a maximum of 500 in the plan’s Phase 2.

Future projects include two additional dormitories (one female, one male), and the former dorm and fourth floor in Old Main will be renovated into classrooms. The school also anticipates creating and improving outdoor recreational spaces and constructing a new gym and additional parking in the future. More than 600 acres of Miller’s campus are held in conservation easement, so new construction would be located within the pattern and envelope of existing buildings.

Miller’s application to the county noted that at an enrollment of 500, the student population split would be expected to be roughly 300 day-students and 200 boarders. Drude said the balance, which currently includes students from 13 countries and about 150 day-students from Albemarle and the surrounding area, provides lots of advantages to the school community. 

“We love having kids from around the world here,” he said. “It really makes for a diverse learning community. It’s awesome for the day students as well because we want them to take full advantage of the fact that we are open 24/7. So, if they’re at practice after school, for example, they’re welcome to have dinner here, or to study with their friends in a sort of extended day. On weekends too, we want to bring as many back as possible for events that we have on campus. You can’t walk around and discern who’s a boarder and who’s a day student, which is cool.”

Drude is pleased that the split between male and female students, which was about 70/30 only four years ago, is close to 50/50 now. “We’re very proud of that. We’ve been working hard on that,” he said. During the Covid outbreak, Miller ran its classes virtually for one semester and then reopened for all who could make it back to campus the following semester. Drude said that and other points of emphasis at Miller have significantly increased interest in the school in recent years.

“I think families are drawn to what we call our Student Success Center, now in its fourth year,” said Drude. “We were challenging certain things and knew we wanted to ‘meet kids where they are,’ and we worked on how best to do that. This is just an amazing student center with a mission of touching every student’s life. We believe in individualized instruction as much as possible, and every student gets a success plan. So, when they come to us, we talk about their journey here, what their end goals are, and then how we can work together with them and their parents to make that a reality.”

Drude, who saw two of his own children graduate from Miller and head off to college, said that honoring each student’s journey while they are at Miller and preparing them for their next transition is very important. “Thirty percent of our kids are signed up to be peer tutors and there are study skills classes that that happen right out of the Center—it’s a hub of activity all day long,” he said. “As a student, you gain confidence when you look teachers in the eye, shake their hands, have those kinds of relationships, aren’t afraid to ask questions. It’s not uncommon to ask for extra help, that’s all second nature to our students.

“I feel really great about Miller’s future,” Drude said. “It’s a fun time to be here, and with that big celebration in four years, there are a lot of great things happening. We are working hard to ensure that a big part of our plan happens in connection with the 150th anniversary. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, and we hope to have a big ribbon cutting for that event.” 

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