More than 320 Fort Hunt High School students, equipped with petitions, buttons and signs, gave up their day off yesterday in a quest to persuade Fairfax County officials not to close their school.

The students staked out 124 voting precincts in the hope of getting 20,000 signatures in support of "the concept of neighborhood schools" in general and the continued existence of Fort Hunt High in particular.

"It's like the basis of our life," explained Stephanie Swift, 15, a Fort Hunt sophomore, from her chilly station at Kilmer Intermediate School near Tysons Corner.

"We spend six hours a day there," she said when asked why so many youngsters were sacrificing a day off to gather petition signatures. "It's something that's really important to us."

"I want to graduate from Fort Hunt," said Elizabeth Davis, 13, a freshman who was lobbying voters at W.T. Woodson High School. "I'd rather spend my day off for my school, because I might not be going to that school if I don't," she said.

Fort Hunt's enrollment has dropped to about 1,200, and a task force has recommended that it be closed and converted to an intermediate school. The Fort Hunt community has mounted an energetic lobbying effort to persuade the School Board not to close the school, and the school's fate has become a key political issue in the area.

Some Fort Hunt parents sought to give the drive more power by promising the School Board that signature-collecting students would hand out literature supporting yesterday's school bond referendum. The board made no deal, but the students were handing out flyers in support of the referendum anyway.

"We always listen to the community," said School Board Chairman Mary Collier yesterday. "But in the end, we will have to make a very difficult decision."

The petition drive showed every sign of far surpassing the immediate goal of 20,000 signatures. More than 4,500 signatures from just Mount Vernon area precincts had been deposited at the school before the evening voting rush. The phone in the high school office rang every few minutes with requests for more petitions from frantic students at polling places who had filled what they had.

"Just tell them the petitions are on the way, and in the meantime, have them sign the backs," Paul Levy calmly advised the callers.

Levy, a government teacher, chairman of the school's social studies department, 19-year Fort Hunt veteran and leader of yesterday's petition effort, said the outpouring of student support did not surprise him.

"The students want to keep their school. They had all this enthusiasm, all this frustration. All that was necessary was to give them something to do," Levy said.