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Dedicating a 'Dream'

Parents, elected officials congratulate each other during South County Secondary dedication.

If not for the work of the Lorton community, the South County Secondary School would be nothing more than a dream until 2008.

However, residents, elected officials and Fairfax County staff banded together, secured funding and managed to open the school doors last September, three years ahead of schedule.

On Saturday morning, Dec. 3, it was time to celebrate.

"This was a parent-generated idea," said School Board representative Brad Center (Lee). "It was the community that was the real impetus for this school."

So members of the community gathered together to celebrate their achievement Saturday morning, as the school was officially dedicated.

THE IDEA behind the South County Secondary School was to create a place from which to build a community center, something that was lacking at Hayfield Secondary School, where most students came from, said Center. "This school has developed a real sense of community here," he added.

One of the legislators credited with creating the public-private partnership that provided funding for the school, Del. Dave Albo (R-42) said the school is the first in Virginia that brought together corporations with private citizens for a common educational goal.

"This school can show others how it's done," said Albo. "This school was built in half the time it was supposed to take."

From the Stallion Stampede, an event similar to a pep rally that took place a few weeks before the school opened, the school was filled with "unbelievable energy" created from being part of the first new secondary school built in Fairfax County in more than 30 years, Albo said.

"The energy that day was ... like being at an NCAA Final Four game. That was the day they played the school fight song for the first time and heard the school cheer for the first time. It was incredible," he said, adding he hopes his own son will attend the school "in 15 years."

A CONTINGENT of residents had worked for years to get the school project as a priority for the county, said Neal McBride, a Lorton resident that has served on several task forces dealing with the redevelopment of the Lorton area.

"It's always a great day to be involved in anything dealing with education," he said. "For those of us who recall the many other opportunities we thought we'd have for opening a school, we say thank goodness it's finally here."

With the Lorton Arts Foundation working on renovating one of the prison-era workhouses to be its home and a Cold War and women's suffrage museum in the works, McBride and many others envision an educational center in the southern part of the county, out of which partnerships with the school can be fostered.

During the dedication ceremony, principal Dale Rumberger recounted the history of the school, highlighting the cooperation of staff members from the Board of Supervisors, School Board, state and federal government and community that allowed the "dream" of the school to become a reality.

"In the beginning, there were students. Many, many students, more than anyone ever realized," he said, starting his chronology. As Rumberger spoke, student government representatives each stood in turn, holding a white placard identifying an involved group and holding a silver key.

When the day to open the school arrived in September, it was "like a dream for some," Rumberger said, filled with "excited, worried, bold, nervous students finally able to walk into this school, their new school."

As chair of the Fairfax County School Board, Philip Niedzielski-Eichner (Providence) said he'd "never seen a more dedicated group of people than the one who got this school started."

He poked some fun at Rumberger, wondering what those responsible for assigning him to South County were thinking, "putting him at a school right next to a golf course." Amid some snickering from those in attendance, he added "don't call the clubhouse if he's missing, he hates having his putting game interrupted."

RECALLING HIS first visit to the school, which took place an hour after school started in September, Niedzielski-Eichner said he and Superintendent Dr. Jack Dale were surprised to find the hallways empty.

"We were honored to see teachers engaged with students so quickly," he said. "What an accomplishment for everyone."

The creation of the South County Secondary School "exemplified what this county can accomplish when there is collaboration for the common good," he said to enthusiastic applause.

"We have transformed this corner of the world," said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerry Connolly (D-At Large). "The excitement here is palpable, all of us need to pause and appreciate this moment."

The ceremony included a surprise for Rumberger and the staff at South County, courtesy of Clark Education, the private sector half of the public-private partnership.

"It is so gratifying to see the support, enthusiasm and spirit the community has for this school," said Claudia Meer, managing director for Clark Education, before announcing the creation of a $25,000 scholarship foundation that will be given out in five $5,000 grants to graduating seniors starting next year.

As she made the announcement, Rumberger's mouth gaped open as he stood, clapping his hands in appreciation.

The last speaker of the ceremony was no stranger to the history or work that led to that day. Liz Bradsher, one of the parents who originally went to Davis' office to talk about options for funding the school project, read off a list of leaders, community members and staff that had participated in the creation of the school, until everyone gathered in the gym was standing.

"Ours is a community that doesn't understand the phrase 'it can't be done'," she said. "Welcome to our home. Welcome to South County Secondary School. Welcome to our community."

Following the ceremony, Bill Strauss, creator of the Cappies high school drama competition, summed up the event in a conversation with Rumberger: "The term 'going south' will have a whole new meaning now."