School had yet to start last week when hundreds of teenagers and their parents crowded the hallways at Dominion High School in Sterling for a practice run.
Unlike most school orientations, kids from all grades -- not just freshmen or new students -- were invited for this so-called Zero Day. Even the buses ran their soon-to-be everyday routes as dress rehearsal for the real thing today.
Amid this organized chaos, Principal W. John Brewer directed traffic, moving students from class to class with a precision born of the digital timer he held in his hand. Encountering a freshman, he shook her hand and told her: "I'm going to come to your house tonight or sometime this weekend. I was on your street last night, and I didn't quite make it."
He wasn't kidding.
Again this year, Brewer has embarked on a mission to visit the home of every new student. Last year, the school's first, there were 700 of them, and his home visits made him a legend in the community -- in part because they don't end when school starts.
Obed Lorety, 16, who moved to the United States from Ghana two years ago, said that Brewer visited his home five or six times last year to get to know his parents. Erica Davis said that Brewer showed up on her doorstep when her daughter, a sophomore, skipped a disciplinary appointment.
"Right away he said, 'Can I see your daughter?' " she recalled, adding that after one more visit, her daughter understood how serious he was about her behavior.
Brewer opened Dominion, Loudoun County's eighth high school, with pledges to create something other than the average American high school -- less anonymous, more polite and more disciplined. In his sophomore year on the job, Brewer said the vision is no longer just his, but theirs.
"I'm overwhelmed about how consistent our community, students and staff are in supporting our ideas," said Brewer, at 35 one of the youngest principals in a generation to lead a Loudoun high school and probably the only one to have written his doctoral dissertation on how to open one. "I believe in the power of expectations. Some expectations that had not been made explicit [at other high schools], we've made them explicit."
For instance, Dominion students get a lesson at the beginning of the school year in exactly how to behave in the hallways. After that, students who get in each other's faces, even in jest, or use foul language are called out for not being "truly Titan," a take on the school's mascot. Brewer credits the policy for the school having one of the lowest suspension rates in Northern Virginia and only one hallway fight last year.
Matthew Vogl, a first-year science teacher, said he noticed the atmosphere when he came to Dominion for his job interview this year.
"I walked into this school and I could see it," he said. "They were not pushing. They were not shoving. I knew something was different there."
The key, Brewer said, is to invest students with the power of good citizenship. One day during announcements last year, he praised two students who turned in a wallet they found in a hallway as "truly Titan." Now, he said, it's not possible to lose something at the school without a student turning it in.
Most days after school, Brewer rides his bike on neighborhood sidewalks to ensure that students don't find trouble on the walk home. He knows every student's name and wants his teachers to learn them, too. To facilitate that, he created teams of about 100 students each, who all have the same teachers in the core areas -- English, math, history and science. Each team has a common study hall, so students know that their teachers will be free to help when they need it.
Other schools use the team concept, usually in ninth grade and sometimes in the 10th before student schedules start to spin with electives and advanced courses. Teaming all four grades is a scheduling nightmare, but the advantage, he said, is obvious.
"Quite honestly, our students are always in the presence of people who know them, and know them well," Brewer said.
So well, said Shayla Rucker, 15, that it can be disconcerting.
Teachers "know your personal business," she said. "They know who your friends are, who you like, who likes you."
Her friend Deana Funderburk, 15, agreed: "They know more than we do."
Not every student is in love with the structured environment. Katie McNally, 17, a senior who spent her first two years at nearby Park View High School, said that many students feel that the staff is trying to "brainwash" them with all the talk of Titan this and Titan that. "It can be kind of annoying," she said. She added that they seem unsure what to do with students who aren't yet sold on the concept.
Brewer said he's not surprised to hear that some kids chafe. The adjustment can be hard for those who went to school elsewhere first, and students, like people of all ages, don't always like doing what's best for them, he said.
"I don't know anyone who's happy when the alarm goes off in the morning at 5:30 a.m. But we get up," he said. "It's a self-discipline that helps us succeed."
As an indication that his methods are working, Brewer points to statistics showing that 30 percent of the school's students received A's last year, higher than the most recent statistics from any other county school. After leading all year, the school's attendance rate dropped behind Ashburn's Stone Bridge High School in the last semester, but only by three-tenths of a percentage point.
"That's important," he said. "You can't teach students who don't show up."
The school has some particular advantages that make his job easier: It is still small -- 1,000 students this year -- and it has a community of committed parents, some of them affluent, and with the time and resources to devote to their children.
But he shares some challenges with other, more traditional schools. The school missed making "adequate yearly progress" under the No Child Left Behind law this year because only 53 percent of black students and 52 percent of low-income children passed their state math tests, when 59 percent was required. He calculated that five more students passing would have changed the results.
"I am not ashamed we didn't make [it] last year," he told the teachers at their first meeting of the year. "I will be gravely disappointed if we don't make it this year. It is imminently achievable."
About 40 percent of students are minorities, many of them recent immigrants with limited English skills, and projections show that about 10 percent of students this year will be poor enough to receive free or reduced-price lunches. He wants to make sure that all of them wear the Titan identity comfortably and proudly.
The young principal's reputation has reached Gerald N. Tirozzi, executive director of the Reston-based National Association of Secondary School Principals. "He goes beyond the traditional duty. It makes a difference in a school, and in the life of a community," Tirozzi said. "But you have to hope those people don't burn out over time."
Brewer and his wife, Rachel, are worried about that, too. In the weeks leading up to Tuesday's opening bell, Brewer has been pulling two or three all-nighters a week to prepare, his wife said.
"We've talked a lot about his health. It's obviously not healthy not to sleep," she said. They've also talked about how he can spend more time with his two daughters, 6 and 8. "I don't know if he's quite mastered that," she said.
The hours he spends on his students inspire loyalty, though. Walter Andrews, president of the school's parent organization, said he'll agree to do just about anything that Brewer asks of him. "Given the effort he puts in," he asked, "how can I say no?"