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Miller School's expansion plans could see the boarding school nearly double its student body

Ahead of its 150th anniversary, the Miller School of Albemarle has announced bold new plans to expand its iconic red-brick wings and “grow in its massive campus,” in the words of headmaster Michael Drude.

And on 1,600 acres of forests and farmland tucked away in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains with only 240 students, the coeducational day and boarding school has ample space to do so.

Beginning this fall, the Miller School, which has been structured for 141 years as an “upper school” for eighth- through 12th-graders, will be taking over the kindergarten-through-seventh grade operations of the Seven Rivers Country Day School, incorporating that school’s 60 students and 10 to 12 full-time and part-time staff into its organization.

“We’re always looking to the future,” Drude told The Daily Progress. “I’m excited to continue this. There’s a really great buzz on campus. With 300 students, there’s just a liveliness that’s fun to be around, and it’s fun to hear and watch it. I’m excited to watch this develop and watch these younger kids grow up and become Miller Upper School kids and just continue the success.”

Seven Rivers has been based out of the Haden-Hart building on the Miller School’s campus for the past four years, having outgrown its facilities at Triple C Camp, a summer camp just south of Charlottesville, according to Drude. As the Miller School is bringing on the entire staff from Seven Rivers, Drude expects it will only need a couple new hires to support the new lower school ahead of the fall semester.

Merging the two programs was a “natural fit,” not only due to their proximity, but as both the Miller School and Seven Rivers emphasize experiential education with a curriculum that integrates classical courses with outdoor, hands-on experience.

Students of all ages have the opportunity to spend time during the day getting their hands dirty at the working farm on the Miller School’s property that also houses several goats, chickens, ducks and a cow. Though elementary school children may be a little too young to understand land management and sustainable agriculture practices, these are among some of the nontraditional courses offered at the Miller School. One such class is the applied engineering program that instructs students in a variety of disciplines, including civil, mechanical, biomedical, environmental and chemical engineering.

This year, a group of students in the engineering program not only competed in the American Society for Civil Engineers Concrete Canoe Competition at Virginia Tech, but managed to beat out college teams from Liberty University, Old Dominion University and the Virginia Military Institute — though their ranking was announced “unofficially” as high schools are technically not allowed to participate. Students spent over a year designing and crafting a 400-pound canoe made entirely out of concrete before testing it out in the three-day competition with challenges such as “swamping,” in which teams take their canoes into the water and fill them with water to ensure they won’t immediately sink, and a series of slalom water races.

The merger with Seven Rivers Country Day School is not the only change in store for the Miller School. Last August, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors approved the school’s request for a special use permit allowing for the construction of a new dormitory.

The residential building will be the future home for boys who are currently housed in the first floor of the main administrative building, known on grounds as Old Main. The Miller School then plans to update the first and fourth floors of Old Main to create more room for classes and community space. The new dormitory will also open up space on campus for faculty housing; roughly 20 of the Miller School’s faculty live on grounds.

“Just one building accomplishes three things for us, so we’re excited about that,” said Drude.

Renovations will also be made to Wayland Hall, the building that houses female boarders. Once these projects are complete, Drude is looking to increase the number of pedestrian walkways and outdoor recreational space between the buildings and limit vehicular traffic by constructing parking lots on the perimeter of the campus.

As the Miller School functions as a private educational institution, it does not receive any financial support from the commonwealth of Virginia, so the administration is already in the early phases of setting up a campaign to fund these capital projects.

Drude said that the school is not looking to dramatically expand enrollment, though it is looking to eventually reach 500 students once the additional facilities are complete. Drude said the capital campaigns are all about setting the school up for success and maintaining its “solid financial ground” for the next 150 years.

“We’re very forward-thinking,” said Drude. “I want the future to be bright for the school, and I don’t want any roadblocks for future administrations, so having a SUP [special use permit] then allows us that growth on our terms and on our scale. That’s the important part in all of this.”

The Miller School was founded in 1878 after Samuel Miller, a businessman from Batesville, bequeathed the majority of his Albemarle estate to establish a boarding school for orphaned children. Miller left behind $1.1 million for the creation of the school upon his death in 1869 and work began on the school’s construction in 1874.

“The Hill,” as the campus is affectionately called by students, has evolved over the years. While it functioned as a coeducational institution in its early years, it transitioned to an all-boys school from 1927 until 1992. During the post-World War II era, the Miller School adopted more military programs until 1992, when girls were allowed to return to campus.

Today, roughly 240 students, nearly evenly split male and female, attend the school. There are 180 who are day students from the surrounding area including Albemarle County, Charlottesville, Waynesboro and Staunton. The school’s boarders hail from 13 different countries, providing more local students exposure to different cultures — “an opportunity that you don’t find somewhere else,” said Drude. The headmaster expects the school will continue to attract students from these markets as it increases its capacity.

Photographs of the school will look familiar to many who have never attended or even visited the campus. The Miller School has been a popular filming location through the years, playing the the boarding school in 1987’s “Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home,” Regis High School in 1991’s “Toy Soldiers,” Madison Preparatory School in 1995’s “Mayor Payne” and the preparatory school in 2005’s “Cry Wolf.”

Expanding into a K-12 school as well as building and renovating several structures on campus positions the Miller School to continue carrying out its mission of “educating minds, hands and hearts” as it reaches its sesquicentennial.

“It’s very rare you get to celebrate the 150th anniversary for any organization, so I’m pretty proud to be a part of that,” said Drude.


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