For years many people said Fairfax County's Groveton High School had an image problem. Its students were supposed to be rowdy, its football teams ranked near the bottom and its racial and economic makeup did not fit in the largely homogeneous and affluent county.
Some of that changed two years ago with the arrival of Principal Paul G. Douglas, who seized every opportunity to laud his 1,200 students over the public address system and in the newsletter sent to parents. But the most marked change has occurred in the past several months with the threatened closing of the school.
"I think we've always had spirit, but I don't think there was ever anything that brought people together," said Margie Hunt, 17, the student government president. "Now it's a matter of, 'If you don't come together, you're not going to have a school.' "
Some say that the Groveton community off Rte. 1 south of Alexandria has indeed pulled together for the first time in recent memory.
Although football still is not the school's strong point, students say that they have found other reasons to have pride. They have a renewed sense of self worth, evident in their impassioned testimony at a series of public hearings on the proposed closing.
"It has changed," said Joanne Cabry, 42, head of the Groveton English department. "I mean, the fact is that we do have a lot of kids who live in bungalows and trailer parks coming to school with kids who live in $200,000 homes. I think they've always gotten along. But now, they have one cause."
School Superintendent William J. Burkholder, who recommended closing the school to solve the problem of declining enrollments in eastern Fairfax, gave the students new hope last week when he modified his initial proposal to the County School Board. He then suggested converting the nearby Fort Hunt High into an intermediate school and sending Fort Hunt students to Groveton and Mount Vernon high schools as a possible alternative to closing Groveton. The board will vote on the issue next Thursday night.
Burkholder's suggestion gave students and parents reason to believe that their new-found spirit is not in vain. Robert H. Smith, one of three chairmen of Citizens Associated for Responsible Education, said: "I'm pleasantly surprised. You know, we had these buttons made up that say 'PAWS and THINK' for the Groveton Tigers. I think Superintendent Burkholder paused and thought. I think [the alternative] is a solution where everybody wins."
"I think our kids will see this is favorable to our cause because, at least, now the School Board has an alternative before them," said Douglas.
Groveton parents, many of whom had never met each other, have banded together and raised more than $8,000 to fight the school's closing. Students have held rallies and written reams of protest letters.
Similar efforts have been mounted at other, more cohesive county schools threatened with closing -- most notably at Fort Hunt High, which is in the same part of the county as Groveton.
That it happened at the rambling brick Groveton complex, where some of the county's richest students mix with some of its poorest, is a source of pride.
"This has pulled together a community that was somewhat -- how to say it? -- going in their own directions," said Smith.
"The reaction of the community has just been amazing to all of us," said Barbara Rosenfeld, another chairman of CARE, the group protesting the Groveton closing. "If this school gets a chance to continue, I think it will be a school with a very different sense of itself."
"I think a nice thing that has come out of this is that I have gotten a chance to really get to know some of the administrators, through the hearings, and speaking to people and such," said Meaghan Hanrahan, 15, a sophomore.
"Parents and teachers are talking a lot more, because we get to see each other a lot more," said Roni Brown, 35, an English teacher.
"I think that now I take pride in the whole of Groveton," said sophomore Angie Comer, 15. "We've really come together for this purpose. We're still little groups, but we're all one."
"It has brought families together, as well as students," said Betty Graves, 46, a biology and science teacher.
"It has been a beautiful political education for the kids," said Principal Douglas. "A real leadership education because the kids are beginning to speak out, get involved, write letters and make speeches . . . .
"I also think that at the games they've become a little more aware of their behavior, because they're on display. Groveton has this rowdy tradition at games of shouting obscenities at referees but I think they've cleaned up their act."
Said LaJuanna Williams, 18, a senior: "Before, it was like, 'Yeah, I go to Groveton. I know our football team isn't that great.' Now, it's like, 'I go to Groveton, and I know our football team isn't that good, but who cares? We've got everything else.' "