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Community Rallies Around Floris

County looks to Dogwood for "blue print" on rebuilding.

If anyone can feel Karen Siple's pain, it is Ricki Harvey. More than 15 months ago, Harvey, the principal at Dogwood Elementary, toured the burned out shell of her Reston elementary school. This past weekend, Siple, the principal at Floris Elementary, toured the flooded out shell of her Herndon elementary school administrative office.

Barely a year after her own students were being shuffled off to two Fairfax city schools, Harvey was one of five local principals who welcomed Siple's newly displaced students into their temporary home away from home on Tuesday morning.

Less than 72 hours after part of the Floris Elementary roof caved in, rendering the school off-limits, students and teachers returned to class on Tuesday, Feb. 25 at one of five different neighboring schools.

On Monday night, the principals of Fox Mill, Dogwood, Hutchison and Oak Hill elementary schools and Gail Womble, Carson Middle School principal, joined Siple, the Floris staff, county school officials and Supervisor Catherine Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) at a community meeting to discuss plans to move students to temporary locations while the county rebuilds Floris. In a show of Floris solidarity, a standing-room only crowd of concerned parents jammed the Carson gymnasium Monday night. "This is why we live here," said Jill Farrell, looking around at the filled-to-capacity gymnasium. "It is just such a family."

<b>IN THE HOURS</b> after the news broke, county officials insisted they would be following the "Dogwood model." The model or plan was developed from the lessons learned from the county's experience in the days and months following the devastating fire at Dogwood Elementary School in Reston in 2000.

"We have all learned from that tragedy, and its aftermath, that we can do it," said school board member Stuart Gibson, referring to Dogwood. "The biggest lesson we learned is the value of teamwork, and pulling together."

In his remarks on Monday night, Gibson quoted from Robert Frost's poem, "Fire and Ice." After hearing about the collapse, Gibson said he instantly thought about a few lines in the poem. Gibson read a few lines: "Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice."

Gibson said he found solace in the Frost's words. "The world didn't end with fire at Dogwood," said Gibson, who was at Floris on Saturday and Sunday. "And it isn't going to end with ice here at Floris."

<b>SEVERAL PARENTS</b> in attendance expressed their gratitude towards the school and the county for their rapid response to the collapse. "I am just amazed at the how much they got done. The collapse happened Saturday and our kids will be back in school on Tuesday, that is pretty incredible," said Jamie Baird, who has three children at Floris. "We all got two phone calls from each of our kid's teachers. Two."

This quick call to action didn't surprise Hudgins. From 9/11 to the sniper ordeal to Dogwood, the Hunter Mill supervisor has watched her neighbors come together during difficult times. "We know that when this community sees a challenge, they know how to step up," she said.

Harvey said Siple will be in for a "roller-coaster" of emotions, and she echoed Gibson's nod to the importance of teamwork. "It's not an experience that any of us signed up for, but it's not like any of us have a choice in the matter," Harvey said. "It will be a hard time, a time of transition, but they will get through this, I have no doubt because this whole school system is a fantastic team."

Unlike Harvey, Siple does not face the task of rebuilding an entire school. Nor will Floris take nearly as long to bounce back. Unofficial estimates point to one month, while it took 15 months for Dogwood's rebirth.

"We knew we were looking at a minimum of 18 months," Harvey recalled. "But regardless of the window of time, it's important to remember to keep the needs of the kids first. My advice to Karen would be to focus on the students' needs, everything else will fall into place."

One of the reasons for Monday night's meeting was to help alleviate any anxiety (by the parents or the students) and dispel rumors that had circulated since the roof collapsed on Saturday.

Despite the reassurances of engineers and experts, some say that children may feel a little hesitant to go back to school, any school, after hearing about the accident. "Some of the kids will probably need some help overcoming their fears that the roof won't fall in on them," Harvey said. "I know after our fire, several students worried that their homes would be burned down."

Harvey encouraged Floris parents to reassure their children, but added that most of them are "pretty resilient."

Chantelle Worthington's daughter, Sarah, a kindergarten student, has had similar fears. Worthington assured her that she was safe.

<b>ON SUNDAY, ONE DAY</b> after the roof collapse, county officials began contacting principals at nearby schools, warning them that they may need to make room for portions of the Floris student body.

When Harvey got the call, there was no hesitation. "We will welcome them with open arms, tomorrow," the Dogwood principal said Monday. "We've been there and we will be there for (Floris)."

Harvey spent much of Monday trying to find space to house her new temporary tenants, the third and fourth graders from Floris. "We're using every last nook and cranny of space," she said.

"This whole community is a family," said Gail Womble, principal at Rachel Carson Middle School. "There was never any question that we would do whatever it took to help out Floris."

Beginning on Tuesday, Womble opened her school's doors to the fifth and sixth grade classes at Floris. Bringing the upper grades to Carson Middle School was an "easy call," said Womble. All Floris students are zoned for her school, she explained. "If there is a silver lining in all of this," Womble said, "it is that the students will get to know their future school a little better."

Hopefully, she said, the fifth- and sixth-graders will feel more comfortable here before they come here in a year or two."

Farrell agreed. Her son, Steven, is a sixth-grader at Floris, and she is not worried about his temporary adjustment to life at Rachel Carson. "It's just like he is getting a little sneak peak at where he will be next year," she said. "In fact, I think he is kind of excited about it."