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At 40, Marshall High Gives Big Bang for Small Bucks

Coming Up:

Who: Any Fairfax County high-school student.

What: Marshall Academy Open House.

When: 6-7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 13.

(Precedes rising 10th- to 12th-grade orientation)

Where: Marshall Academy, 7731 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church.

Course offerings include Chinese 1,2,3, and 4; computer systems technology, criminal justice, database design and management, hotel management, engineering physics, and network design and engineering.

At the age of 40, venerable Marshall High School is the smallest of Fairfax County’s 24 high schools.

Its athletic teams compete in district play against teams drawn from student bodies that are much larger.

Marshall has 1,242 students to compete with Madison’s 1,632 and Langley’s 1,877.

The football team won only one game last fall, played against an out-of-district rival. Although its size would place it in AA Division for sports competition, Marshall “plays up” in the AAA division.

The basketball team lost a hard-fought game to archrival Madison High School on Friday, when a commendation by the Virginia General Assembly was presented to the high school at halftime to honor its 40th anniversary.

But in other venues, Marshall is proving that size isn’t always what matters most, that diversity can crystallize into a mosaic of talent, and that the will to win can overwhelm the advantage of size.

Several years ago, when the Fairfax County School Board was searching for inventive ways to cut costs, someone suggested selling off Marshall as valuable commercial property near the intersection of Route 7 and I-495 in the Tysons Corner area.

Instead, the School Board began an International Baccalaureate (IB) program at the school in 1997. It also serves as a center for adult language and high-school equivalency courses. As one of five high-school academies in Fairfax County, 700 students from other high schools attend courses at Marshall.

“We are getting our money’s worth out of Marshall High School,” said Fairfax County School Board member Ernestine Heastie, who represents Providence District.

Given its recent wins in venues other than team athletics, Marshall makes a strong case-by-example that good things come in small packages, and the runt of the litter sometimes ends up best in show.

Last year, it surpassed arch rival Madison by having higher average SAT scores. Marshall Principal Leslie Butz said the school prepares its students, many of whom speak English as a second language, by encouraging them to take the preliminary test — the PSAT — three times for practice.

Many are attracted to Marshall by the academically enriched IB degree program, which emphasizes interdisciplinary learning and grades students on written essays rather than multiple-choice questions.

Marshall offers unusual courses like anthropology and human anatomy, and its biology students go to Inova Fairfax Hospital to observe open-heart surgery.

Maybe not in football, but Marshall does have bragging rights to these first-place finishes:

• First place, Liberty District, Virginia High School League One-Act Play Competition, 2003.

First place in the state in 2000 and 2001.

• First place, Physics Olympics;

• First place in 10 of 12 categories at the regional DECA competition last week. Marshall will go on to statewide competition next month;

• Rank and File, the school newspaper, won Quill and Scroll’s Gallup Award and was named to the Virginia High School League’s Trophy Class for the fifth straight year;

• Two years after a Marshall faculty member organized a “poetry slam” at the school, other high schools followed suit. Marshall won the regional poetry slam competition last year and will compete again in regionals at the high school on Feb. 24.

The poetry slams show how faculty members involve themselves with students. Teachers conduct the slams held periodically in the evenings, where students “perform” their original poems within a three-minute time limit by emoting with voice, song or body language.

“Just about every teacher after school is doing something with the students,” said Assistant Principal Rani Hawes.

So are most students. Native Spanish speakers tutor others, and an English writing lab is staffed by IB students.

“Students involved in activities have higher grade point averages,” said Butz, a former assistant principal at Langley High.

In addition to introducing the concept of poetry slamming in the area, Marshall enjoys at least two national distinctions: It is the only high school in the nation named for former Secretary of State George C. Marshall. That has led to a link with the George Marshall Foundation in Lexington, said Virginia Del. Jim Scott (D-53rd), who represents Vienna in the House of Delegates and has a daughter who attends Marshall.

He co-sponsored the General Assembly’s commendation with Virginia Sen. Janet Howell (D-32nd).

MARSHALL IS also the only public high school in the nation gifted with state-of-the-art equipment by Ford Motor Corp., which is used in auto technology courses offered at Marshall Academy.

The IB program of studies, demanding as it is, seems to satisfy students who want academic challenge.

“I wanted to be in a program where I would feel, like, ready, when I go to college,” said Jessica Underwood, who hopes to attend college at Notre Dame.

“Every one of these kids, in every exam, is going to see things they’ve never seen before,” said Connie Wineland, the IB coordinator.

“Everything along the way is application and analysis.”

When Heastie asked how much time it takes to keep up with IB studies, Underwood replied that “It depends on your definition of ‘life.’”

“We don’t hang out at each others’ houses as much, or go to the movies. We spend our time at school,” she said.

IB students also perform 150 hours of community service and, as seniors, take an interdisciplinary course titled “Theory of Knowledge,” which examines the development of human thought.

Given the international character of Marshall’s student body — Marshall students come from more than 56 countries and speak more than 32 languages — “IB was such a nice match,” said Butz. “This is a very international population.

“This is an exciting time of year. We have students applying to the best colleges in the world.”

Some 91 percent of Marshall students go on to college or other postsecondary education.

A portion of the students from Kilmer and Thoreau Middle Schools in Vienna, and Longfellow in McLean, attend Marshall High.

Students from any other high school can attend classes at Marshall’s Academy, or enroll in the International Baccalaureate program if they provide their own transportation.

Thanks to a new partnership with the George C. Marshall Foundation in Lexington that was facilitated by Va. Del. Jim Scott, future Marshall students will be eligible for possible summer internships at the Foundation.

Also under discussion are scholarships for winners of the Statesman Star Awards, traditionally two graduating seniors.

Scott’s daughter, Mary Alice, is a Marshall freshman, attending outside her base school district so she can participate in the IB program.

“She thought it was such a friendly environment. She was pretty excited about the IB program, too,” said Scott.