The mission for some of Fauquier County's most influential leaders seemed simple enough: Find ways to improve the county's two high schools and prepare them for waves of newcomers. But first they had to determine during two hours of debate what the problems were.
In the first of four sessions this month and next, about 50 county and school officials, parents, teachers, students and business leaders began a thorough review of Liberty High School in Bealeton and Fauquier High in Warrenton.
They brainstormed, floating ideas that would accommodate enrollment increases and advance curriculums. County officials project that high school enrollment, which stands at 3,085 this year, will swell by about 700 in the next five years.
The focus group, which met Wednesday night at Fauquier High, proposed several ideas, including a Governor's School, a magnet program typically specializing in technology, such as Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, that would be open to students in neighboring counties; a vocational center shared by the two schools; or offering Lord Fairfax Community College classes online so high school students could take more advanced courses.
This is the first time the system has conducted such a broad self-examination, school officials said. After members of the Secondary Programming Focus Group, who were appointed by school system administrators, finish their meetings at the end of February, the county School Board is to consider their recommendations.
School officials said they sensed that in the weeks before the meeting, group members were concerned that plans were firm to build a third high school and that this would dominate the discussion. Superintendent J. David Martin said at the outset of the meeting that there was no such plan.
"If you've come here with an agenda, that will squelch our creativity," he told the group members, who sat at wooden tables in the school library. "We're asking this group to think about programming. No idea will be seen as foolish or otherwise."
The discussion, led by a team of Charlottesville building designers hired to research educational data, began with no set limits and stayed that way. A microphone was passed around, and people vented about problems related to their children's schools and debated the merits of classical and career-based courses.
Martin said he would like more vocational courses but first wanted to see statistics showing whether students taking them actually enter those professions.
But county Supervisor Joe Winkelmann (R-Center) wondered whether more traditional courses should be emphasized.
"For those of us interested in classical education and rigorous study, is it appropriate to think that way?" he asked. "It's not just job creation that drives curriculum."
Other group members lobbied to whittle class size, especially in such core subjects as English, math, history and science.
"The idea of putting my 6- and 4-year-olds in a class of 25 kids has problems," said Philip Mulford, a county Chamber of Commerce vice president, who said he was not sure whether he would send his children to public schools.
The next meeting is scheduled for Jan. 22 at the Fauquier High library at 6:30 p.m.