Like everyone else in the Fort Hunt community of Fairfax County, Ben Vennell was still reeling yesterday from the news that the School Board had voted 6 to 4 Thursday night to shut Fort Hunt High School.
Vennell, owner of the Hollin Hall Variety store, where he still sells the green and gold gabardine and sailcloth for Fort Hunt's cheerleader and drill team outfits, has lived in the Fort Hunt community for 28 years. For 23 of those, Fort Hunt High has been a focus of the community. Both his daughters went to Fort Hunt.
"The community is basically in shock," Vennell said. "What I've been hearing so far is the same feeling I have. 'What happened?' We thought Fort Hunt would stay open. It's like they pulled the rug out from under us."
According to the decision, students who would have been Fort Hunt ninth graders next year will go instead to rival Groveton High. In the 1986-87 school year, all Fort Hunt High students will switch to Groveton, and Fort Hunt will become an intermediate school, with seventh and eighth grade students.
School officials expect this to solve the problem of declining enrollments in the extreme eastern part of the county, as well as to save the county an estimated $1.7 million a year in operating costs, and, they hope, provide the students with a greater array of educational opportunities.
The school closings issue has been a volatile one for the county, with parents, students and teachers from both Groveton and Fort Hunt hoping that their school would be the one left intact. Yesterday, the emotional impact on Fort Hunt was evident in the decision of Principal Thomas J. Cabelus to keep the school closed to the press because he said his students were still too upset to talk.
Fort Hunt students said after the school day ended that it had been a sad day, and that Principal Cabelus, as well as some of the teachers, had cried.
"Nobody wants to go to Groveton. I'm serious," said Chris Wetzler, 16, a junior.
"It will take a while for people to accept it," said Melanie Alnwick, 18, a senior. "But, in a few years, people probably won't remember there was a Fort Hunt."
Earlier this week, Fort Hunt students worried what would happen to their cheerleaders, football players, wrestlers, student government leaders, trophies, band jackets and much more -- details school officials will have to work out in the coming weeks.
At Groveton yesterday, there was elation. Someone had left a bunch of balloons in the school colors -- black and gold -- in Principal Paul G. Douglas' office, and students hugged each other and cried.
Teachers talked with students about the change during their first class period, giving them a chance to talk about their feelings and to "get over the gloating," Douglas said.
"We're going to make the kids from Fort Hunt feel good, and not rub their noses in it," said Lisa Elliott, 14, a Groveton freshman.
Some Fort Hunt students also said they were anxious about the possibility of going to Groveton because of Groveton's reputation as a rowdy school.
"There are a lot of myths that Groveton is a rowdy, dangerous, ghetto school with a lot of vandalism," said Douglas. "But, it's simply not true . . . . There are students who still hold grudges and have old scores to settle, but we think we can get over that."
He hoped such proposed activities as joint dances, school visits, leadership retreats and, perhaps, a student exhange program during the phase-in period would dispell some of the fears.
Jack L. Hiller, Groveton's Social Studies chairman, said, "The students from Fort Hunt don't have anything to be anxious about. This is their community school, too. Fort Hunt and Groveton -- that was an artificial division to begin with. We welcome them with open arms."
Many said yesterday that they hoped to work together to ease tensions between Groveton and Fort Hunt, although they conceded the job would not be easy, and would require extraordinary cooperation from students, parents and teachers.
Douglas plans to meet Tuesday with Area I Superintendent Doris Torrice and Fort Hunt Principal Cabelus to talk about ways of easing the transition.
Grant Harris, president of Groveton's Student Parent Teacher Association said he plans to talk with Groveton staff and supporters on Monday to discuss plans, including school tours and orientations for next year's ninth graders.
Harris's Fort Hunt counterpart, Wyley Neal, yesterday wrote a letter to the School Board to express his concern about the decision. But he said his PTA would meet Thursday, and he has already appointed a subcommittee to work with Groveton.
Peter Brinitzer, head of the Neighborhood Schools Coalition of the Fort Hunt Area, Inc., said his group will meet today and Sunday "to determine what, if any, recourses we have." He added that the coalition would not consider a lawsuit except on substantive grounds and with the full support of the community.
School officials have expressed their desire to help mesh Fort Hunt and Groveton. Board Chairman Mary E. Collier, who said the Fort Hunt-Groveton decision was the hardest the board ever had to make, said she hopes students from the schools will choose a new school name, a new mascot "and begin to create a new high school out of two high schools."
Said Fairfax Schools Superintendent William J. Burkholder: "Once . . . the kids get in their new surroundings, then we will see an awful lot of ill will dissipate."