In the fall of 1998, no one thought the southern area of Fairfax County would be getting its own secondary school before 2008 at the earliest.
But that failed to stop Liz Bradsher, a Crosspointe resident, and a handful of other parents who were fed up with the lengthy commute to Hayfield Secondary School in Alexandria.
"It had truly been a hardship on this community for the last 20 years," said Bradsher, a mother of two.
The activists kicked off a long and difficult effort to convince Fairfax County Public Schools and local and federal politicians to speed up the process.
Their work helped convince U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-11) in 1999 to turn over the former Lorton prison site to be used for the school. And in 2000, they helped initiate a public-private partnership with the developer KSI/Clark Construction to fast-track the project.
Now, seven years since their efforts began, the new South County Secondary School is poised to open its doors on Sept. 6.
"Everybody told us we'd never be able to do it," Bradsher said. "It's just so hard to believe that we actually made a difference. No other community has done something like this. We overcame the odds. We proved them all wrong."
CONSTRUCTION on the new school began 18 months ago. For much of the past year, Dale Rumberger, the school's 52-year-old principal, has worked out of trailer on the 70 acre site, hiring teachers, overseeing construction and coordinating the fine details necessary to open the county's first secondary school in five years.
"It's taken a lot of work, but we'll open on time," Rumberger said.
Rumberger, a veteran principal who opened Westfield High School in 2000, helped Westfield grow into one of the Northern Virginia's top high schools both in academics and athletics.
When Rumberger opened Westfield, he worked out of the same trailer he has used while preparing South County. He calls it "Old Swayback," a reference to a ship in the 1965 film "In Harms Way," in which a World War II Naval officer leads a fight against overwhelming odds, aided by his trusty crew.
"When I saw that I had the same trailer, I thought to myself, 'That's got to be a good omen,'" he said, sitting in his new office at the school.
The community has high hopes that South County Secondary School will quickly join Westfield among the best of Fairfax County's 25 high schools. Rumberger said he expects South County will fit in easily with the already top-notch Fairfax County school system.
"My goal is to just be as good as every other Fairfax County school," he said. "I want to match the community's expectations."
THE SCHOOL was built on the site of the old Lorton prison, which housed inmates from Washington, D.C. for more than 100 years.
Now known as Laurel Hill, the prison complex is being transformed into a golf course, an arts center, an assisted living facility, the South County school and more.
The $70 million school was built thanks to the public-private partnership, in which KSI/Clark Construction proffered $18 million. Fairfax County taxpayers will pay off the remaining cost over the next several years.
The building is based on the designs of Westfield, but with a few minor adjustments, such as larger hallways and more natural light in classrooms. By using existing plans, the school was able to open its doors as much as a year earlier than expected.
"The public-private partnership was very successful for South County Secondary School," said Dean Tistadt, the school system's assistant superintendent for facilities and transportation. "Clark has performed the construction extremely well. The real key to the success of the project was the county giving the school system the entire $18 million proffered by the developer."
Tistadt said South County financing model lets the county "build now, pay later," allowing the project to proceed without negatively impacting other school construction projects elsewhere in the county.
FEW THINGS indicate a school's future success than its spirit of volunteerism, Rumberger said. And if the past few months are any guide, South County is on the right track.
More than 250 parents, students and others — all wearing T-shirts that said "South County Movers" — have helped unload more than 7,200 pieces of furniture from 13 tractor trailers. Last Friday, an army of volunteers were stamping textbooks, engraving calculators and unpacking hundreds of boxes.
"These people have made all the difference," Rumberger said. "If we hadn't had the community helping us every step of the way, we would not be as ready as we are today."
Diana York, mother of a seventh- and 10th-grade student at the new school, has coordinated the volunteers in recent weeks. She said there have been at least 10 children for every parent helping prepare the school.
"People are really excited," she said. "We've had some really dedicated people here all day everyday for the past two weeks."
THE 410,000 SQUARE FOOT school boasts some of the spiffiest features of any Fairfax County school.
The school's technology exceeds that of any previous school in Northern Virginia. Wireless connector points allow laptops to access the Internet from anywhere in the building. In all, the school has more than 800 computers — roughly one computer for every three students.
A state-of-the-art gymnasium floor is designed to prevent injuries.
In each classroom, the desks are unusually large for a Fairfax County school, allowing students to spread out instructional material more than on a traditional desk. And students will sit on ultra-modern chairs hand-picked for comfort and style.
"I butt-tested them myself," Rumberger joked.
South County is subtly designed to be a safe school, with very few blinds spots.
Also, several points in the school allow teachers and security officers to monitor multiple hallways simultaneously, ensuring students are headed toward class and staying out of trouble.
School Board Member Dan Storck (Mount Vernon) said all of these features add up to become one of the region's preeminent learning environments.
"Within three or four years at most, it will be considered one of the best schools in the county," Storck said.
WHILE THE COMMUNITY is excited about the opening of the South County Secondary School, it is tempered by the fact that the school will quickly become overcrowded — probably by next year.
Designed to accommodate 2,500 students, the school will likely surpass its capacity next year when a senior class is added. For its first year, the school will house students from grades seven through 11.
"I believe we can anticipate that the school will be over capacity in its second year," Tistadt said.
Because it is based on Westfield's design, the school was meant for high school students in grades nine through 12. But because school officials do not plan to build a middle school for the area until 2015, it is a safe bet that South County students will be taught in trailers for years to come.
For Bradsher, the new challenge is to generate momentum to build the new middle school ahead of schedule, much as she and the other community activists did with the secondary school.
"The school system needs to be honest with this community and follow through with their promise to build a middle school within five years," she said.
But for now, most residents are simply pleased that a secondary school is finally open in the South County area — a community center where they can watch football games, orchestra performances, theater and more.
"This community needed something to pull it together," said Lisa Adler, the school's PTSA president. "This school has done it."