In the game of high school boundary changes, Gar-Field has become a hot potato.

As school officials decide which neighborhoods will be moved next year from crowded Osbourn Park and Woodbridge high schools into Gar-Field, some county residents have spent countless hours trying to make sure that the 2,500-student facility across from Potomac Mills does not wind up as their neighborhood's high school.

Privately, some parents question whether Gar-Field is as strong academically as Prince William County's five other high schools, and they worry about the atmosphere.

"Kids have told me that there are fights there, that it's like a prison," said one parent who asked not to be identified.

Sitting as it does behind a six-foot-high chain-link fence, which was put up last year to provide a boundary between the school and the three shopping centers around it, Gar-Field has a forbidding look.

"We're the only school in the county that has a fence," said senior Ron Avey. "It's a misrepresentation. I was talking to a parent of a kid who goes to another school. She said, 'You have a fence, so you must have problems.' "

Conversations with faculty and students in Indian Country, as Gar-Field is known, revealed a school that is diverse, optimistic and intensely proud. Yes, students say, occasionally there are problems. "Any school has them," said one faculty member. But staff members and students insist that Gar-Field is an excellent school and that any opinions to the contrary constitute a bad rap.

The major problem for Gar-Field, according to Principal Roger Dallek, is its image. "Gar-Field is like a book," he said. "You open it up and there's a lot that looks really good. But the cover of the book may not look so good."

Dallek, 39, an energetic, dapper man who assumed his job in September, is determined to turn around the school's image.

One of his first acts was to institute "The Big Four": No hats, no sunglasses, no radios and no gum.

The students don't like the rules, he acknowledged, but he said things had gotten a little lax over the years, and the rules were needed. They are part of what Dallek calls his philosophy of "structured humanism."

"We do the same things a family does: We create a framework of expectations. And inside that framework, we are warm, friendly, caring. Most parents try to do the same thing we do here."

Striding down the hall one day last week, Dallek stopped to tease some sophomore girls selling "Cupid Grams" for Valentine's Day. "Anybody bought any for me?" he inquired.

He greeted a group of boys enthusiastically, "How are you, my man!" he said, grasping senior Jesse (Boo) Briscoe by the shoulder and pumping his hand.

"He's a great guy," Brandon Harris said of Dallek. "He even bought me socks this winter."

"You needed them. Your ankles were showing," said Dallek, refering to the sockless fashion fad.

"I tease them about it, say I'll give them a couple of bucks to buy socks," Dallek explained.

The students at Gar-field hardly need stipends for their socks, but the school doesn't draw from the county's most affluent section. Most students live in Dale City, where housing is generally less expensive than it is in Lake Ridge and other areas to the north.

Students interviewed at Gar-Field delighted in pointing to their families' relatively modest income levels compared with what they consider to be the conspicuous consumption of their rivals at Woodbridge.

"Each school is stereotyped," said senior Mark Poillucci. "At Woodbridge they're rich, snotty. Everybody is driving Mercedes. Here they have regular cars. There's barely any stuck-up people here. Everybody really sticks together."

Robbin Beasley, a senior who attended Woodbridge High her freshman year, said simply, "I think we have a better attitude. People at Gar-Field are more down to earth."

Chris Aleo, a Gar-Field social studies teacher who graduated from Woodbridge 14 years ago and held his first teaching job there, discounts the stereotypes. "I think all kids are 'just kids,' " he said. "I don't think Woodbridge is necessarily snotty."

"We've gotten this reputation as being a tougher school," senior Scott Auld said during a discussion in Sharon Burniston's Journalism II class. "There's no truth in that."

"People think that because there are black students here, they must have guns, knives and drugs," said classmate Sandra Blackett, who is black.

Gar-Field's student body is 18 percent black, and with its smattering of Southeast Asians, Indians, Filipinos and Hispanics, it has the highest proportion of minority students in the county at about 23 percent.

"But there's little prejudice here," Auld said.

"You don't really notice the color of people at Gar-Field," agreed Kenya Broadie, a junior.

Although black students congregate in groups during the lunch break in the school's lobby, it is not uncommon to see blacks and whites strolling together in the hallways.

Said Aleo, "What makes this school special is the faculty. They're very academically oriented."

Virtually every student interviewed echoed Aleo's sentiments. Many students also praised their teachers' "caring" and "fairness"; a few complained that there are not enough young teachers on the faculty of 140.

Gar-Field's faculty holds the distinction of being the most stable among the high schools. English teacher Chuck Edwards has been at the school for 20 years, not an unusual tenure on the campus.

How will Gar-Field absorb 160 additional freshman students next year when redrawn boundaries bring students from new neighborhoods to the school? Dallek says he is determined to make the mix -- whatever it is -- work.

"For one thing, we are postponing eighth grade orientation until early March so we can include children from the new areas," he said.

As for the turmoil over the new boundaries, Dallek played it down, saying: "I don't think anyone is saying anything about whether one school is better than another -- only that people don't like to change."

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-------------GAR-FIELD HIGH SCHOOL-------------------

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--------------------------------- Gar-Field------ County Average

--------------------------------- Population--------------------

Black.................................18% .................. 11%

White.................................77% ...................85%

Hispanic...............................2% ....................2%

Asian..................................3% ....................2% --------------------------------------------------------------------- 10th Graders Passing Feb. 1987 State Minimum Competency Exam

Reading.............................98.1% .................98.5%

Math................................96.2% .................97.7% ---------------------------------------------------------------------- SAT Scores, Class of 1987

Verbal mean.........................443 .....................444

Math mean...........................478 .....................485