Facing the likelihood that one of their high schools will be converted to an intermediate unit, leaders of citizen groups from Fort Hunt and Groveton high schools remain "cautiously optimistic" about their schools' futures.
The Fairfax County School Board is scheduled to decide tonight on how to solve the problem of declining enrollment in the Mount Vernon area. The board is expected to convert one of the high schools to an intermediate school.
Group leaders used identical phrasing in assessing the moods of their communities in interviews this week. "I would say we are cautiously optimistic," said Paul Dux of the Fort Hunt Neighborhood Schools Coalition. "We have done what we think is right to present our case -- extolling excellence in public education as demonstrated at Fort Hunt.
"Our mood is cautiously optimistic," said Groveton's Bob Smith, cochairman of Citizens Associated for Responsible Education. "We are encouraged by Superintendent [William J.] Burkholder's new alternative." This proposal would keep Groveton as a high school and make Fort Hunt an intermediate school.
Leaders of the groups have been busy the past several weeks, speaking in support of their schools at public hearings, sending letters to community residents to keep them abreast of events, and meeting individually with School Board members trying to persuade them to keep their school open.
It's been a lot of work," said Smith, "but the support has been amazing. We group leaders have had people coming up to us saying, 'We'll do whatever it takes,' whether it's writing letters, stuffing envelopes, coming to meetings, whatever." Smith said the group has raised close to $8,000.
At Fort Hunt, group leader Peter Brinitzer said community support has been equally fervent. "We've had hundreds of people donate literally tens of thousands of man-hours to this cause," he said.
The group, which has raised almost $15,000, has taken out full-page newspaper ads in local papers, organized a massive letter-writing campaign and even compiled a 16-page booklet detailing the history of the school and awards won by students.
"We are extolling the virtues of Fort Hunt High School, trying to create the image that it would be a shame to close down a school characterized by academic, athletic and cultural excellence, with almost unparalleled community support," said Brinitzer. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it. And Fort Hunt ain't broke."
Brinitzer said the Fort Hunt group had 60 speakers at the public hearings giving "rehearsed speeches -- rehearsed in the sense that we tried to hit our points one-by-one with a continuity, a train of thought . . . no emotionalism, no demagoguery."
The Fort Hunt group paid to have the principal of Brandon Intermediate School in Virginia Beach fly in for a public hearing Monday night to discuss large enrollments at intermediate schools. Principal Charles Atkinson's school has an enrollment of more than 2,000.
The School Board in 1984 adopted a policy that the capacity of a new intermediate school should be no greater than 1,000 students. Burkholder's primary proposal, supported by the Fort Hunt group, would create an intermediate school of 1,700 students at Groveton.
Smith said Groveton's strategy at the hearings was to assemble as broad a range of speakers as possible and assign certain people certain topics, such as finance and vocational activities. "The main thing we said was 'Let's not repeat ourselves. Let's do this in an orderly fashion,' " he said.
Each side said it believes that the long and sometimes bitter struggle to save its school has at least offered "due process to present their views," as Brinitzer put it.
"It's been a very long road, but we feel both sides have been heard. In that sense, the process has been eminently fair," said Groveton's Barbara Rosenfeld. "Now the School Board has a tough decision to make."
That decision is expected to come down to one of three major proposals before the board. Burkholder's primary recommendation, made Dec. 6 and finalized Feb. 28, is to convert Groveton into an intermediate school and close Bryant, Whitman and Foster intermediate schools. Students from the Fort Hunt, Groveton and Mount Vernon areas would all attend Groveton Intermediate before splitting into Mount Vernon and Fort Hunt high schools.
Burkholder's substitute proposal, presented Feb. 28, would convert Fort Hunt into an intermediate school and close Bryant and Whitman intermediate schools. Foster Intermediate would remain open. Students from the Fort Hunt and Groveton areas would attend Fort Hunt Intermediate and Groveton High under this plan, with Mount Vernon area students attending Foster Intermediate and Mount Vernon High.
A citizen task force report issued in October recommended converting Fort Hunt to an intermediate school, closing Bryant and Foster, and renovating Whitman Intermediate for $5.2 million. The task force proposal would send students from the Fort Hunt area either to Whitman Intermediate and Mount Vernon High or Fort Hunt Intermediate and Groveton High.
Students at both schools seemed a little less sanguine than citizen group leaders. Fort Hunt senior Preston Green said "there is a feeling of almost hopelessness" at his school. Students, he said, are "resigned [to the fact] that Fort Hunt may close down."
Groveton Junior Julie Tayloe said that when the subject of next year's activities is discussed at Groveton, "People say, 'Why talk about it, because they're just going to close us down. The board is just naturally going to follow what Burkholder said. He's the boss.'
"But I think the board can do what it wants. They might surprise us."