Everybody at Auburn Middle School has been hustling. With about two weeks before the start of the school year, custodial crews and teachers were hosing down sidewalks, painting walls, waxing floors and tearing open boxes of cafeteria tables and chairs. It was not until the end of last week that the school finally got its phone lines up and running.

Seems a bit last-minute? It's been a long time -- by Northern Virginia's standards at least -- since Fauquier County has opened a new school. In a region where school districts open as many as five schools a year, slow-growing Fauquier is a proud anomaly.

On Monday, Auburn Middle School, located in New Baltimore in the easternmost end of the county, just off the major commuting artery of Route 29, will be the first school to open in Fauquier in four years. In 2000, Brumfield Elementary School opened in Warrenton, replacing Central Elementary.

Auburn brings to 18 the number of schools in Fauquier, which is expecting 10,519 students this year, up from 8,263 during the 1994-95 school year. School system officials predict about 300 new students annually over the next five years. Fauquier voters will decide in March whether to build a third high school, possibly near New Baltimore. The two existing high schools, Liberty and Fauquier, are both over capacity by hundreds of students.

Auburn Middle School, built near a village of the same name where Union and Confederate soldiers battled in 1863, is designed to ease crowding at the county's four other middle schools. The 119,000-square-foot building will house about 450 students this year, mainly from its largest feeder elementary school, C. Hunter Ritchie, and Warrenton Middle School, where crowding was problematic. Auburn has room for another 180 students, and if the suburbanites keep coming, the school has enough land to build an addition so that the school could house just over 800 students.

The most attractive feature of the 48-classroom, two-story school is its layout, said Principal Jim Angelo. The school is laid out according to grades instead of departments. Students in each grade will have their own "pod," complete with their own teachers, classrooms and lockers all in the same area. The floors of the classrooms are even color-coded to denote the grade: Royal blue for sixth-grade, light purple for seventh and light blue for eighth grade.

"It's like a school within a school . . . It's a feeling of cohesiveness," said Angelo, 35, who was hired last year from a middle school in Frederick County, Va., where he was an assistant principal. Since the lockers are so close to each other, he said, "each class is 51 minutes long instead of 48 or 47."

Even the grades themselves are divided up into "teams" to enhance the personal attention for students. The sixth- and seventh-grade classes, for instance, are each split into two teams. One sixth-grade team will have about 100 students and four teachers who each specialize in math, English, science and social studies; a smaller team of about 50 students will have two teachers -- one specializing in English and social studies, the other concentrating on math and science.

Since the eighth grade is larger and on the cusp of the challenging course work of high school, everyone will get a teacher specialized in a certain subject. The entire grade will be split into two teams, each with four teachers in math, English, social studies and science.

Instructors on a team all have the same planning periods, so they can collaborate on assignments or swap strategies on teaching particular students. One of the best parts of "teaming," Angelo said, is that teachers can coordinate meetings with parents during the day without worrying about whether their schedules will match up.

Parents and students are almost giddy about the new school. Students who have been on tours are most impressed by the lockers, Angelo said. They are individual, full-size lockers, not stacked on top of each other as they are in other schools.

Even though the $13 million school may boast shiny new science labs -- which come with their own dishwashers so students don't fumble those beakers over a sink -- it will be missing a huge component: The soccer, football and baseball fields won't be ready until next fall, Angelo said. In the meantime, he said, some of the games will be played at Fauquier's two high schools.

Connor McCartin, 12, of New Baltimore, said he was happily moving from Warrenton Middle School to Auburn, where he will be an eighth-grader on the football team.

"When I went for a football meeting, I looked around. The classrooms are bigger, the gym floor is polished," he said. "And I met the principal; he takes our opinions."

Angelo said one of the most useful tricks in improving education is by empowering and trusting the students. Last year, a group of incoming Auburn students was picked to write the school's code of conduct and decide whether they wanted a student council. They didn't -- the consensus was that student elections are too much of a popularity contest, Angelo said.

Angelo said one of the main issues hanging over his head is keeping the students' state Standards of Learning (SOL) exam scores high and constantly improving.

"But we're not just teaching SOLs or facts. We're teaching them how to be citizens," said Angelo, who is about to defend his dissertation at George Washington University on how a school in rural Virginia with a high poverty rate made the largest improvements statewide on SOL scores.

He said he believes that schools succeed when they involve parents, when students feel comfortable chatting with administrators and when principals "are not afraid to say they made a mistake."

Auburn Principal Jim Angelo is excited by the "pod" layout of the school, which he says will build cohesiveness among the students.John Fravel of Miller Brothers Inc. arranges the letters to be placed along the side of the building.Librarian Janet Miles unloads books in the school's new library. Workers are scrambling to get the building ready for the start of the school year.Auburn's color-coded layout will keep each grade together in a "pod" format.