Manassas Park Fulfills Goal of Rebuilding Schools

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 25, 2009

One hundred fourteen years after Virginia seceded from the Union, tiny Manassas Park seceded from Prince William County with a little more success. City founders in the 1970s were driven in part to improve education but had scant time to build a school system. So they cobbled together campuses with trailers.

That era ended yesterday as a procession of students lugged boxes into the aisles and benches of school buses and hauled them across town to an unconventional new elementary school, culminating a decade-long drive to rebuild all four city schools. Manassas Park High was overhauled in 1999, then Cougar Elementary in 2001, Manassas Park Middle in 2006 and now Manassas Park Elementary. Test scores have improved along with facilities, and aspirations of the founders have in many ways been fulfilled.

"Manassas Park is a classic example of a school district leading its community out of the doldrums," said Daniel L. Duke, a professor at the University of Virginia who wrote a book about the school system's transformation.

In the city of 13,500, streets are lined with small Cape Cod houses and bigger split-levels, and punctuated with "For Rent," "For Sale" and occasionally foreclosure signs. Almost half of the students in the schools qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch.

School performance is on the rise. The dropout rate has declined almost two-thirds since 1996, and 97 percent of third-graders last year passed state mathematics tests, a higher rate than anywhere else in Northern Virginia.

As schools have improved, residents and businesses have migrated into the city. In its first years, the only businesses were in a strip mall. Now, construction workers are putting the final touches on a dense four-story complex of buildings that Mayor Frank Jones says he hopes will become a small downtown.

"Good schools are a catalyst," Jones said. "Without good schools, people don't want to come to the community."

To save moving costs, school officials hit on a novel way to make the move from the old campus on Tremont Street to the new one on Brandon Street. They closed school for the day, giving students the day off to encourage them to help out. Some people likened it to a barn-raising.

The ecology-friendly elementary school is sandwiched between two stands of forest. Light flows through skylights, and a geothermal system heats and cools rooms, saving on energy. Big windows capitalize on the views. In the hallways are dry-erase boards and seating, to make learning possible in what would otherwise be wasted space.

There are community focal points in each of the three new schools. The elementary school has an immense stage, to accommodate the school band in which every student eventually takes part. The middle and high schools share a vast wrestling facility, and they field teams that have in recent years won state championships, noted on "Welcome to Manassas Park" signs posted along Centreville Road.

"When I first started teaching, people were embarrassed to say they worked at Manassas Park," said Sharon Figueroa, who has taught kindergarten and first grade in the city since 1984. One of her first classrooms was in a jumble of sagging modular buildings. An old stop sign patched a hole in her sagging floor. Now, light suffuses the new classrooms.

Carrel-filled rooms are sprinkled throughout all three campuses -- one of Superintendent Tom DeBolt's ideas -- giving teachers space to grade papers, respond to e-mail and collaborate away from the classroom clutter.

"They're really setting teaching aside with respect as a profession," said Joe Portelli, who teaches third grade reading and math. "We don't just play with kids all day."

Duke said students were once embarrassed to play home games because their facilities were so shoddy. Now they take pride in the new buildings.

"I wish I could go here," said Jessica Fields, 17, a senior at Manassas Park High School who helped move boxes into the new elementary school. "It's nice that we got to help."

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