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Madison's Renovations Provide Challenges

The ongoing renovation project at James Madison High School in Vienna becomes apparent to students in the late afternoon when the traffic patterns of the day are altered by strategically closed gates.

"At 4:30 p.m., it gets bad. That's when they lock the gate," said freshman Ashley Bailey, referring to the main hallway. "It's not too confusing, but things keep changing."

Madison is in the second phase of a three-phase renovation project that will result in a new entrance, added footage to the building, the creation of a black-box theater, new media center and revamped halls and classrooms for the more than 1,600 students.

"Our capacity is 1,648 students. When the work is completed, our capacity will be 1,850 students," said principal Mark Merrell. "The students are remarkable. They're doing major construction, and we're doing everything we can to minimize disruption to the instructional program. You go into the classrooms, and the students are focused."

The $35 million project has been in the works since planning began in 1997. A timetable for the completion is difficult to estimate said Merrell, since the work is being funded on a year-by-year basis.

The school system is in the process of renovating five county high schools, as well as making other capital improvements, and is held to a $130 million per year spending limit by the county government, which sells bonds to pay for the projects. The school system's capital improvements plan projects expenditures through FY ‘05 for the high-school renovations.

"IT HASN'T BEEN that bad," said junior Chris Simms. "They're doing a lot. It looks nice so far."

To date, a new special-education wing and renovated science wing have opened, and the new media center will open in April.

Along with it has come the loss of parking, the addition of 17 trailers and relocation of classrooms. Staff members take turns manning visitor sign-in tables at various doors throughout the building, since the main entrance is closed.

Last week, the foreign-language rooms upstairs were displaced and found new homes wherever space was available to allow workers to begin renovating that part of the building.

"We have very flexible students and teachers who have been able to make the best of an uncomfortable situation," Merrell said.

The teachers and students are given as much advance notice of impending moves as possible, so as not to interfere with the daily lesson plans, said Bob Robyak, the Fairfax County Public Schools liaison among the school staff, planning staff and construction crew.

"It's been disruptive, but the kids have been flexible," said Sue Hamblen, Madison PTSA president. "Parking is a nightmare. Traffic patterns change each day. It's not a fun thing, but we're grateful. It's needed, and we don't have the option to go somewhere else."

For Merrell, who became Madison's principal this school year, watching the renovation project unfold has been an opportunity to see images on paper come to life. He was a teacher at Madison during the planning stages before becoming assistant principal at McLean High School, only to return to Madison.

"I saw it on paper, and now I see the fruition," Merrell said.

THE RENOVATIONS presented a challenge beyond the average school day. The summer camps and adult-education classes usually held at Madison had to be moved off-site, but so far athletics and other extracurricular activities have been able to go on unimpeded.

Concern over the safety of the students while the work is going on has been minimized by requiring all the construction workers to wear badges or be forced to leave the construction site. In addition, temporary walls are constructed to keep students from wandering into areas of the building that are under construction.

"Security was heightened because we have outside personnel walking around. I feel the kids are safe," Hamblen said. "I think people are going to be floored when they see the front entrance and the media center."

Merrell said the plan is to have a public ceremony every time a new section of the school opens, not only to let taxpayers see what they are paying for but to give a jolt to the community's morale while all the work is going on.

The community has been chipping in, said Hamblen, as volunteers. For example, she said, 60 parents have signed on to move the library books from the old library to the new media center.

As parts of the school open, said Merrell, it becomes a source of pride for the students. He said when he took the Student Government Association officers on a tour of the new media center, their faces lit up.

"It's going to be a nice-looking school," said Bailey.