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Washington-Lee High's New Building to Open Today

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 3, 2008

As 15-year-old Kyle Thornhill roamed the halls of the new Washington-Lee High School yesterday, a day before his peers, he couldn't wait for them to see the cyber cafe with its rows of flat-screen monitors, the balcony off the library, the overwhelming amount of space.

"Amazing. Big. It's the one word that came into my head," said Kyle, who was among a handful of students invited to get an early peek. "Extravagant. It still has the new-building smell."

Today, the four-story building in Arlington County officially opens to students, the culmination of construction that began in April 2006.

"Every corner, you see something new," said Kyle, adding that some students will have trouble finding their way around initially. "I think half the school will be lost, and if they're not lost, they will want to be lost to explore the new building."

All 250,000 square feet of the new building have wireless network access. There are motion-sensor lights, SMART Boards in every classroom and a "green roof" designed to reduce storm-water runoff.

"It's been a long time coming," said English teacher Sarah Harrick, who graduated from the school in 1995. "These kids are growing up in a different world, where they wonder why they don't have Internet access in the car. To so many of them, the school has been behind the eight ball, and so now it's an even playing field."

The old building, a 1924 facility in which a classroom's temperature was dictated by its proximity to the boiler system, "lived a long, healthy life, and I think it's time to go," she said.

The total project, with the last two phases expected to be completed by the end of 2009, is estimated to cost $95.2 million. The old building was constructed piecemeal, officials said, and a 2002 engineering study identified it as being in great need of renovation or replacement.

"They needed to put a bullet in that building," Assistant Principal Tyrone Byrd said, adding that the boiler dated to World War II. "And I'm glad they did it."

Byrd, a graduate of Arlington's Yorktown High School, said there is no comparison between his schooling experience and that of students nowadays.

"Everything is right at their fingertips," he said, adding that the building's Internet capabilities will allow students to download assignments directly onto their PDAs. "It's just an exciting time. I wish I were a student again and definitely a teacher again."

He nonetheless acknowledged that the move created a sense of loss for some. He said that he has seen 80-year-olds come to say goodbye to the old building and that one veteran teacher grabbed him by the shoulders yesterday and voiced anguish.

On metal pillars in the hallway of the new building leading to the cafeteria are black-and-white photos of graduating classes. In one, from 1995, Harrick has her arm around a football player at a homecoming game. In another, taken about 25 years earlier, Tom Chisnell is in his crew uniform the year his team competed all the way to England.

Chisnell, 56, who graduated in 1969 from Washington-Lee and has taught there for 25 years, attributed some of his best memories, the type "you keep for a lifetime," to the school. The biology teacher said its graduates have included Shirley MacLaine, Warren Beatty and Sandra Bullock.

"For me it's very exciting," Chisnell said of the move. "I never imagined . . . that we would get a place like this."

As Arlington School Superintendent Robert G. Smith walked the halls yesterday, peeking into classrooms, many teachers thanked him.

"I wish I could take credit for it," he said more than once.

He stopped momentarily in the classroom of Natalie Root, who teaches an Advanced Placement course in government, as she tried to familiarize herself with the SMART Board. Her daughter had come a day earlier to help her understand the interactive white board, which has a touch-sensitive display connected to a computer and a projector.

"I'm a technophobe," joked Root, who began her career in 1977. "I'm a boomer. This doesn't come naturally to me."

Despite the expected frustrations, Root said, she knows the new capabilities will enhance her teaching.

"I think what is remarkable in these classrooms is your traditional notion of students stuck in a seat for the entire time is gone. ," she said. "I'm convinced it's going to change how we go through a daily lesson plan."

"I'm looking forward to it," she added. "I just have to get used to it."

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