Since July, Jeff Abt has been the principal of a Manassas school that does not yet exist: Mayfield Intermediate School, currently under construction and set to open in September 2006. These days he works out of a trailer next to the construction site.
As of now, he is Mayfield's only salaried employee, trying to fashion a school from thin air, with little more than a phone and a slew of spreadsheets.
"This is the first time in the history of our school system that we've had an employee assigned to a school that isn't open yet," said Manassas School Board Chairman Arthur P. Bushnell. "I think it shows how important this is to the city."
Mayfield Intermediate will be a school for fifth- and sixth-graders, located off Signal Hill Road near Oakenshaw Drive. Planning for the school began in 2002, when the city hired a consultant to examine severe crowding in the school system. Eventually, most agreed that the way to take pressure off both elementary and middle schools would be to build a new school that would include one grade from each. The school will open with about 1,100 students and roughly 130 staff members.
Construction on the $28 million school began last fall and should be finished next June. The construction company has laid the foundation, and so far the work is under budget and ahead of schedule, city officials said.
Originally, school officials had hoped to start work on Mayfield a year earlier. But community concerns about the safety of the Signal Hill site, which has an electrical substation, and haggling over cost caused a delay. City utility managers now say the site is safe, Manassas School Superintendent Sidney "Chip" Zullinger said.
"I think it's going to come in as a world-class school," Zullinger said.
Zullinger suspects that, statewide, intermediate schools will gain more popularity as parents and educators realize their potential for tailoring teaching to a specific age group, mostly 10- to 12-year-olds.
"I think the key issue is that these are transitional ages between childhood and adolescence," said David Fassler, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Vermont who is affiliated with American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. "For some kids, if they enter a high school setting too early, it can be overwhelming. It can also be inappropriate for them to stay in a setting with younger children."
Teaching and school experts say that although intermediate schools offer a better-targeted approach to teaching and more age-appropriate extracurricular activities, it is good teaching and small classes that make schools successful. Mayfield's teachers will most likely work in teams of three -- each team in charge of about 75 students.
Abt will have some help in making Mayfield cutting-edge. Over the next few months, he will be putting together a staff, communicating with parents and assembling a PTA.
Beyond that, he is trying to create the best school he can within the city's price range.
"There's only so much money in the budget, and you have to try to make it work," Abt said.
He hopes to have enough sophisticated technology in the school to keep it up to date, even 25 years from now.
Aside from high-tech equipment, the school will have whiteboards rather than chalkboards. And throughout Mayfield, some hallways and classrooms will be divided with moveable partitions, giving teachers flexibility when they want a large group of students in one space.
Last year's third and fourth graders in the city voted on the school's colors. Black and gold won. The mascot will be the Bobcat.
With school colors comes school spirit, and with school spirit comes school sports. Abt has not forgotten about that.
"I plan to have a heck of an intramural league if I can have it," he said. In his dream scenario, the school could have a full-fledged athletic program for sixth-graders with basketball and volleyball.
Abt comes from Baldwin Elementary School, where he spent eight years as principal. His familiarity with the school system and the community has helped ease the construction of the school, Zullinger said.
"Opening a new school is challenging, but there's no doubt in mind that Jeff Abt is going to do an incredible job," said David McGlothlin, president of the city's teachers union.