When School Board member Charles J. Colgan III was a student at Stonewall Jackson High School, he was told that his classrooms--separated by thin partitions, bookshelves and other makeshift dividers--would be enclosed in "a few years."

Eight years later, after joining the School Board, he's hearing the same refrain--that the project to enclose the open classrooms at Stonewall Jackson, Woodbridge Senior, Gar-Field Senior and Osbourn Park high schools is a few years off.

Frustrated by the lack of progress, Colgan said he wants to make sure money for those renovations is added to the school system's Capital Improvement Plan, which was released last week.

Open-concept classrooms were considered the wave of the future in the 1960s and 1970s, said Robert A. Ferrebee, associate superintendent for management, who was a teacher then. Teachers were supposed to lecture to students in large groups of 100 to 150, then break off into smaller groups to work on projects. Thus, the idea of wall-less classrooms opening onto a central "pod" was born.

"It was a communal approach back then," Ferrebee said. Plus, creating classrooms without doors or walls was a more cost-effective way of building schools quickly. Prince William County's four open-concept high schools were built within four years.

But teachers chose not to adopt a communal teaching style. Smaller class sizes became desirable. And staff were left with classrooms that opened onto busy halls, or where noise from adjoining classrooms seeped through flimsy dividers.

"It's an archaic concept," said Maureen Ellis, chairman of the social studies department at Stonewall Jackson High. Her classroom is a bit more isolated than others, but she said the noise from other areas is the biggest problem.

"It's especially distracting to learning-disabled students," said Gar-Field teacher Jane Huestis, who said that many students with attention-deficit disorders also have problems dealing with the noise.

Ferrebee agrees that walls should go up. "It just comes down to a priority and finding the money to do it," he said.

The estimate to enclose classrooms in all four high schools is about $40 million, which would more than cover the costs of building a new high school for 1,400 to 1,600 students. Ferrebee acknowledged that the $40 million figure might be high because other renovation costs have been included.

"When I saw that figure, I just about fell out of my chair," said Colgan, who took School Board Chairman Lucy S. Beauchamp (At Large) on a tour of Stonewall yesterday morning. Four years ago, the figure was around $3 million per school, he said.

"We can't get a handle on this until we find out, first of all, how much is this going to cost," Colgan said. His goal is to get an accurate figure and then have the project scheduled in the Capital Improvement Plan, which plots construction and renovation for the next 10 years.

"You can ask the students," Colgan said. "It's hindering their instruction."