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Local Principal Leaves Legacy

As the new principal for the elementary school in Lorton, Susan Garrison knows that the same formula that worked at Springfield Estates Elementary School may not work at the new school. It's a new location where the geography's different, the chemistry's different and the brand-new building is larger than her old school, so the instructional antics that have become her trademark may have to be shelved.

"It's always a challenge to build a new community," said Garrison, who has been at a few different schools throughout her career, including one brand-new school. "It's always a bittersweet experience. You have an opportunity to step forward, to take chances and risks. That's how you learn."

Past teaching techniques that Garrison used to inspire students at Springfield Estates included dressing like the Queen of Hearts, reading books on the roof, riding a horse around the schoolyard and holding a large python. They've also incorporated a Leonardo da Vinci character to teach the students, a Native American giving history lessons, and an afternoon homesteading on the school field like pioneers did during the California gold rush. Each incorporated a lesson she referred to as "hands on learning."

Although Garrison might not abandon these methods of teaching, she wants to see what will work in Lorton.

"It defines itself. You have to let the community establish its own identity. Whatever it takes, I will seek ways, encourage or nurture ways to inspire the children," she said.

Garrison has hinted at coming up with some type of school activity to coincide with her departure.

Terri Fullerton went to Springfield Estates Elementary as a child and now has a child enrolled there. She said that Garrison's strength was "making education not just a school function. The horse, the snake, the whole bit. We get play-by-plays every night," she said.

Librarian Chris Bowers is in on the last hurrah before Garrison leaves.

"We want to figure out what we're going to do before she leaves. We want to squeeze one more in," she said.

Garrison has shared her future plans with the students. She is scheduled to start at the new school, which is informally known as “Lorton Station” for now, in early February.

"They've been very interested," she said. "I've used it as an opportunity to learn."

The new school is scheduled to open in September 2003, but the county process is to get a new principal early and establish the administration long before the first day. One of the first things that Garrison will do with the new community around the school, which will be along Lorton Road, is come up with a name. She was part of a similar process at Crossfield Elementary School, when it opened near Herndon.

"I was involved in the opening of Crossfield, with the naming and all, it was fun. Even some of the children participated," she said.

Some of the guidelines that the county uses for school names reflect honor, strength or someone that made a contribution.

"We're fortunate in Fairfax that we can select a name that will enlighten or inspire," she said.

As far as picking a successor is concerned, it's a procedure that involves the PTA, School Board and community. The cluster director, Betsy Fenske, is involved as well.

"She is managing that process. There's already been a community meeting. It's a long process," Garrison said.

THE NEW BUILDING is the biggest floor plan that the county is currently building, according to Gary Chevelier, Fairfax County Public Schools director of facilities planning.

"It is a prototype model," he said. "It's on schedule to open this coming September."

The school will be similar to Lane Elementary in Kingstowne and McNair Elementary in Herndon. They were designed to hold 950 students, although Lane is adorned with trailers to accommodate a larger area growth than was previously thought.

"We call them 36-classroom buildings," Chevelier said.

This school isn't going to be the only new school in the Lorton area, once construction over at the former prison land is under way, according to Mike Eckhoff, Fairfax County Public Schools design and construction engineer.

"There's probably, down the line, more schools needed," he said.

The price tag on the unnamed Lorton elementary school is $9,779,000, according to Eckhoff.

"That's an excellent price. It's driven by the economy," he said.