There are no children here.
There are no blackboards, classrooms or teachers. In fact, there is no school.
Yet veteran Fairfax County educator and Principal Dale Rumberger finds himself in familiar surroundings: an office in a trailer, cases of bottled water at his feet, a Port-a-John outside, the buzz of machines, the whir of mixers, the beep-beep-beep of construction vehicles.
Last month, Rumberger, 51, began a stint at the helm of the new south county high school, which will sit in rapidly developing Lorton, where fields are giving way to housing complexes, shopping centers and recreation areas. For now, the school is halfway to completion, and Rumberger keeps an eye on progress through a cubby-size window from his trailer across the street.
While the lack of students or an actual school might make most administrators feel out of place, Rumberger has been through this before. Five years ago, he started similarly -- in the same trailer, in fact -- as principal of Westfield High School in Chantilly. Opened in 2000, the school has quickly risen to become an athletic and academic powerhouse in Fairfax.
Parents and community members hope Rumberger will do the same for their high school and perhaps along the way contribute to southern Fairfax's face-lift. The 2001 closing of the sprawling Lorton correctional facility has helped lure families southward in their search for bigger but affordable homes.
"The south county high school will probably will be one of the most significant things to happen since the closure of the [prison]," said Greg Schuckman, president of the Lorton Station Civic Association. "It is putting a brand-new face on what the new Lorton looks like."
In fact, the high school is being built on the site of the former prison, which housed the District's criminals for more than a century. Under a public-private partnership, the development plan for the high school also includes a golf course and an assisted-living facility. Developer KSI/Clark Construction plans to complete the $62 million school by the scheduled opening in September 2005, but the county has a few years after that to continue paying off the debt on the school.
Currently, students in southern Fairfax can spend more than an hour each way commuting to high schools throughout the county, from Hayfield Secondary School to Edison High School, both in the Alexandria area, to Lee High School in Springfield. Community members in Lorton have also advocated for a new middle school to open alongside the high school; the School Board has designated that the new school open as a secondary school, initially for grades 7 through 10.
Over barbecues and camp carpools this summer, parents in southern Fairfax are buzzing over who will end up at the new school and who will go elsewhere as new boundaries are drawn. Such debates are a fact of life in growing areas, but they tend to pit communities against each other and can turn quite political.
Parents such as Schuckman also fear that Lorton and neighboring areas have already outgrown the new school. Schuckman said the parents of children at Gunston, Halley, Lorton Station, Newington Forest, Saratoga and Silverbrook elementary schools would prefer that their children enter the new secondary school, but not all will be able to. The school will hold as many as 2,500 students.
"There are six schools that had an expectation they would be able to send their children to the new high school, and there isn't enough space available for all six constituencies to go. It's going to make it very difficult on the School Board to redistrict in a way that is equitable and manages expectations within a community," Schuckman said. "Where to send all these kids?"
The school district has scheduled three public meetings this fall to discuss precisely that question. They will be held at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 12, Nov. 3 and Nov. 15 at Hayfield, said Gary Chevalier, director of facilities planning for county schools.
"We'll have to set an attendance area for the new school," said Chevalier, adding that he did not want to speculate on the school's boundaries. He did, however, confirm that the decision would have a ripple effect on the rest of the county. "That is likely to have a significant impact on Hayfield and create significant space at Hayfield. We're looking to transfer other schools to Hayfield."
The neighborhoods under consideration for the new school include those in the Lee, Hayfield and Edison attendance areas and possibly Mount Vernon High School, officials said, stressing no final decisions have been made.
One person has already vowed to stay out of the whole debate.
"I do floors, I do windows. I don't do boundaries," Rumberger said, half-joking. He said he has tried not to become involved in parental and community quarrels over who gets to attend the new school.
"One of the things we did well at Westfield was unify the three schools that sent students," said Rumberger, who said he conducted 1,140 interviews for the first 129 staff hires he made at Westfield, which brought together students from Centreville, Chantilly and Oakton high schools.
He noted the roles of administrators, teachers and support staff in helping set a tone for a new school.
Department heads at Westfield, for example, held monthly meetings to discuss and coordinate everything from grading to field trips.
Asked about Westfield's success and his role in it, Rumberger repeatedly begged off, saying: " I did not do that. We did that."
And he insisted he is not going to try to create a "mini-Westfield" at Lorton, saying the western and southern parts of the county serve different students. He should know: Fifteen years ago, the Rumbergers moved from Burke to Lorton. He and his wife have two sons, ages 23 and 14.
Having spent just a few weeks on the job, Rumberger said he would wait until he has met with new School Superintendent Jack D. Dale before moving forward with plans for the school, where his input will range from the physical design of some classrooms to whether or not flat-screen computer monitors will be ordered. Little will be tangible until he has a team in place, Rumberger said.
All he can be sure of is one thing: "I may be asking my kids to work harder than they have before," he said.
To see more construction photos and an update on construction progress, go to