The summer of Corey Gartenhaus's dreams started in June, when she got her driver's license. Instead of going to sleep-away camp, she worked as a counselor at a "fashion camp" and earned a real paycheck. Then came a vacation in California.
Now, as Corey's magical summer nears an end, the 16-year-old Great Falls teenager has been waking up -- literally. She is setting her alarm earlier and earlier so she can once again get up at 5:15 a.m. to make it to Langley High School on time, beginning Tuesday. She's been scrambling to finish the summer reading she must complete for two Advanced Placement classes, a 730-page novel called "Cloudsplitter." She has stood in line to buy the required school supplies and check them off a list: pens, pencils, binders, loose-leaf paper, composition notebooks and more. And then there are the clothes, loads of them needed to perfect that first-week-of-school image and set a tone for the year.
For Corey, shopping is the coolest part of going back to school.
"I'm a shopaholic," she said recently. "It's a year-round thing, but especially in the two weeks before school."
So what look will Corey pull together on the first day she reports to junior year, the year everyone says matters most to colleges? Probably a purple polo shirt and a green miniskirt, Corey said. Not too short though, she cautioned. Langley, like all Fairfax schools, is entering its second year under a stricter dress code.
"I'm trying to get myself focused," Corey said. "I'm just trying to put myself in a 'you can do it' mind-set."
Many students across Fairfax County likely will awaken with that goal Tuesday, when an estimated 166,275 of them head back to school. Although many will walk down familiar hallways or adhere to long-established routines, much of what and who they encounter will be new -- starting at the top.
In July, Jack D. Dale headed across the Potomac River to Fairfax to take over the superintendency of the region's largest school system.
Dale, 55, is a veteran educator who most recently held the same title in Frederick County schools. He plans to spend the first day of school much as he has spent the first few weeks on the job: getting acquainted with principals, teachers, staff and students. He said he has already visited several schools that are on a modified, year-round calendar.
"A fair number of schools started the first week of August," Dale said. "It feels like we've already started, and I've been out visiting those schools already, which has been real nice."
Dale is not the only new administrator. This year, 32 county schools will change principals, the same number as last year. Over coffee and at open houses, the principals have tried to reach out to the diverse members of their communities, and they have talked with students who have showed up for band or sports practice in the last few weeks.
At Crestwood Elementary School in Springfield, new Principal Judith F. Lewis mailed families an introductory letter and met with parents at the school's on-site family resource center. Lewis took over for Patricia Zissios, a popular though opinionated Crestwood principal who retired and will now head Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy in Alexandria. Lewis previously served as principal of Kensington Parkwood Elementary in Montgomery County and also worked in the district's administration.
"It's starting to feel like home," she said of Crestwood. "But a building is just an empty building until the children and faculty come back. Then it becomes a school."
Like many elementary schools, Crestwood posts supply lists, grade by grade, on its Web site so parents can start buying over the summer. Kindergarteners need scissors -- not just any scissors, but the Fiskars brand with safety blades. And they can't forget the two bottles of blue glue gel. Fourth-graders, besides a box of Ziploc bags and six spiral notebooks, will need to secure a map of Virginia.
Parents say between what schools want and what their kids want, supplies can end up costing upwards of $100. Patty Gartenhaus-Bachner, Corey's mother, said her daughter has already picked out her dress for the annual homecoming dance, still more than a month away.
"But she may be atypical," laughed Gartenhaus-Bachner, who is co-president of Langley's PTA.
More typical of high schoolers might be Melony Ugarte, who turned 16 on Tuesday and will enter her junior year at Herndon High School.
"I just get supplies after [school starts] because I don't know what I need until after the first day of school when they tell us," she said. But Melony said she has begun shopping for clothes to make sure she has new outfits in the first week of school. She still needs boots and a fall jacket, she said, but they might have to wait until she finds an after-school job.
Weightier matters face the county School Board in the coming year.
Many students and parents throughout the county are keeping a close eye on a debate over admissions policies at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology near Alexandria. Some community members decry the current admissions procedure at the elite magnet school because they say it leads to a student population that does not reflect the county's diversity.
A panel of experts that studied Jefferson's admissions advised relying less heavily on a test and considering other factors such as teacher recommendations, extracurricular activities and essays.
Currently, Jefferson narrows a pool of 3,000 applicants to 800 semifinalists on the basis of a multiple-choice test of math and verbal skills.
"The school will maintain the high standards for admission," Dale said, "but increase the number of admission packets that get reviewed."
The School Board is scheduled to vote on a new admissions plan next Thursday. Board members have spent their summer at work sessions and forums hearing comments on the admissions process.
In addition, Chairman Kathy L. Smith said, the board has been looking at ways to streamline some of its own functions while expanding others. She said board committees will be restructured; for example, what was formerly the instruction committee will now be a committee on instruction, special services and youth development.
The board will wade into more controversy as it begins hearings on the proposed boundaries for the new south county high school in Lorton, scheduled to open a year from now. Parents at Gunston, Halley, Lorton Station, Newington Forest, Saratoga and Silverbrook elementary schools are lobbying for their children to feed into the new secondary school, which initially will include grades 7 through 10, but officials say the new facility, with a planned capacity of 2,500, won't be able to fit them all.
Some parents fear that Lorton and neighboring areas have already outgrown the new school before it has been completed. The school district has scheduled three public meetings on the subject, at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 12, Nov. 3 and Nov. 15 at Hayfield Secondary School.
"All of these things are going to take time," Smith said of the board's lengthening agenda. "We are analyzing our growth and seeing what we need to do. There's the constant work of how we come together."
New instruction programming at schools varies from textbooks to reading curricula to a more intensive autism initiative for the preschool to sixth-grade levels. Last school year, after a parent-led effort to start a charter school for autistic students was defeated, the School Board voted to allot $3 million for additional staff and training.
"Fairfax has made progress in improving its autism programs," said Randolph Nicklas, chairman of the nonprofit group Parents for Autistic Children's Education, which developed the charter school proposal. "A number of parents we know will be taking advantage of this."
In fact, Nicklas's own son, Tommy, will be attending Sunrise Valley Elementary School in Reston. Tommy previously had been home-schooled.