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Bulldozers, Backpacks at Ready

With the first day of school around the corner, three local principals survey their changing landscapes.

For Stephen Hockett, the end is in sight. For Michelle Padgett and Frank Bensigner, the long ride down renovation road has just begun. All three veteran Reston elementary school principals are anxiously awaiting the first day of school when the faces of the their returning students may be more recognizable than the buildings to which they are returning.

In a few weeks, Hockett will ring in a new school year by welcoming nearly 920 students into a new, improved and finally finished Hunters Woods Elementary School. Across the Toll Road, bulldozers, hard-hats and portable classrooms await the hordes of returning students at Lake Anne and Forest Edge elementary schools.

Traditionally, the first day of school represents a new beginning, but for these three Reston schools, the first day is chance to show off new renovations or preview future ones. For Hockett and the Hunters Woods staff and students, the first day of school in their newly remodeled building has been a long time coming. Complete with 12 additional rooms including new art classes, science rooms, a basketball court and a black box theater, the "two-plus" years of renovation funded by the 1999 School Bond Referendum was well worth the wait, the fifth-year principal said. "Finally, we are in the last phase of renovation," he said, noting that the school's new gym may not open until October.

Earlier this summer, trees on the east side of Lake Anne, Reston’s oldest school, were cleared to make room for another Reston elementary renovation project. Padgett, the Lake Anne principal, can hardly wait to welcome her own long-awaited 8-room $2.1 million bond-funded addition whose first phase is slated for completion next August. In the meantime, Padgett was forced to close some additional classrooms and add some additional trailers, all in the name of progress, she said. For now, Padgett is content to welcome one four-legged addition to her North Shore Drive school, the hand-painted donkey that was part of the "Party Animals" art project on display in Washington last year. Lake Anne was the only Virginia school to have a participant in the parade of political party mascots, the principal said. Last month, "Partying in the House and Senate," as it is called, returned to its home in front of Lake Anne. While in Washington, the colorful donkey, which was designed by Lake Anne first and second graders and painted by fifth and sixth graders, held court in front of Children's Hospital.

"THIS WAS A TOTAL BUILDING renovation and everyone — the students, the teachers, the staff and the parents — are equally excited," Hockett said. "Hunters Woods is such an extraordinarily supportive community. Throughout all of this, we have been providing for the children even without the best possible physical plant to do it. We worked around the renovation. You have to be flexible."

Frank Bensinger, like his colleague at Hunters Woods, is ready to start school while also starting to remodel. Now in his thirteenth year at Forest Edge, he has waited a long time for a major overhaul to his school that first opened in 1971. Late last month, the bulldozers arrived, the school’s drop ceilings were brought down and the contractors set up shop in the front yard.

"The county is doing it right. It is a very inventive process and I am very impressed. At every step of the way they have included me in the process," he said, flipping through the oversized book of construction and design plans on the planned $8.1 million expansion. From a wireless network for the staff, a sprinkler system for safety and a new library for the students, the new Forest Edge will hold up against any of its younger Reston neighbors, Bensinger said. "They tell me it will last 18 months," he said. "I’m realistic. I give it two years."

In the meantime, nearly half of the more than 860 Forest Edge students will be housed in the 23 trailers set up in rows behind the existing brown brick school. The temporary trailer park behind Forest Edge was playfully dubbed "Outback Acres" and "Parkside Estates," Bensinger said, pointing to the makeshift trailer towns in the backyard.

LIKE MANY RESTON SCHOOLS, including Forest Edge, Hunters Woods, an arts and sciences magnet school, was built more than 30 years ago during the peak of the "open school" movement that produced classes without walls and walls without windows. The fad was relatively short-lived, but the buildings remained. "We had almost no windows," Hockett said. "I guess they didn’t appreciate the need for natural light."

The new Hunters Woods is bright and airy, complete with interior and exterior windows and skylights, many skylights.

As a way to thank the community around his school, specifically the taxpayers who helped fund the two-year renovation, Hockett is planning a community open house on Oct. 18. Not limited to students and their families, Hockett wants everyone to come out and see their tax dollars at work.

"I think only about 25 percent of Fairfax County residents have school-age children, but we’re all part of the same community, whether or not we have kids here. Good schools benefit the entire community," he said. "Our goal this year is to expand the school community to encompass the broader community."