When the trucks carrying 7,200 desks and chairs pulled into the freshly paved parking lot at the new South County Secondary School last month, Principal Dale Rumberger could have hired professionals to haul the furniture inside.
But Rumberger had a better plan for the $18,000 that would have used up. So he took a chance and put out a call for assistance over the school's Web site.
Four days later the trucks were empty. About 250 parents, students and younger brothers and sisters -- each given a T-shirt that said "South County Movers" on the front and "You Call, We Haul!!!" on the back -- showed up to help. The $18,000 went toward a mobile laptop computer lab instead.
The free labor was nice, Rumberger said. But the real value of the effort, he said, was in the camaraderie, enthusiasm and plain old school spirit he saw growing on those sweltering August afternoons.
"People wanted to help. This area has been waiting for this school for 40 years," Rumberger said. "I saw parents working with their kids. I saw seventh-graders and 11th-graders working together. The school is this community."
As 164,900 Fairfax County students head back to classes Tuesday, about 2,300 will become the first to attend the county's fourth secondary school, built on the site of the former D.C. prison in Lorton. After months of contentious debate, the county School Board decided in January which neighborhoods would send students to the new school. Since then, families within the boundaries have focused on helping to get South County up and running.
In recent months, as construction crews worked feverishly on the $62 million school, families selected the Stallions as the school mascot in an online vote. (Grizzlies and raptors were among the other top picks.) Green, blue and silver were picked as the school's colors. And the school's music teachers composed the tune and lyrics to a fight song.
"It's fun, because we'll get to pioneer everything. It's kind of like starting our own school with some of our friends," said Claire Bridges, a rising 10th-grader who recently volunteered to stamp and shelve hundreds of books arriving at the school library.
Jenna O'Bryhim, another soon-to-be 10th-grader who helped with the library books on a recent afternoon, said it's been exciting to pitch in and see the classrooms and stage and gymnasium come together.
"Now that I'm working here, I feel like part of the school," she said. "I can actually walk around and see it."
South County is the first new high school to open in Fairfax since 2000, when Westfield in Chantilly started classes. This year, South County will house students in seventh through 11th grade. An adjacent middle school is planned for the site on Silverbrook Road.
Rumberger, who was Westfield's first principal, has been heading South County for about a year, working until just weeks ago from an office in a double-wide trailer across the street. He selected department heads in December, and about 75 percent of the school's teachers were hired after a job fair in March. He picked the desks and chairs -- which are unusual for the school system because they are not attached to each other -- only after taking a set home and deciding it was the most comfortable option.
The school will offer Advanced Placement classes, and Rumberger said he expects that every student will take at least one honors or AP class before graduation. "Every student has gifts," he said. "I tell students, 'You have four years, stretch yourself.' "
Lisa Adler, president of the PTSA, said there are about 50 members who have been meeting regularly but she expects many more once school begins. Already the group has hosted two lunches and a breakfast so the school's teachers can get to know each other. And soon fundraising efforts will begin to help give student clubs a financial start.
But Adler said her first order of business as president was making sure that no hard feelings lingered from the impassioned boundary debate. After the School Board's decision, some parents were upset when neighborhoods were left out, and others thought the board included too many students.
"I said, 'It's time to put everything else aside, it's time to go forward,' " Adler said. "I think we've come together. We've really pulled the community together after years of some contentious issues."
Loraine Goodenough, who has two children who will attend the school, agreed that most people seemed to have put any disagreements behind them, and the focus has been on the excitement of opening day. Sports teams and musical groups have been practicing, and students gave tours during Monday's "Stallion Stampede," an event designed to allow everyone in the community a chance to visit the school.
"You can't pass up a grand opening of something this new and shiny and fun," Goodenough said. "I just had to be part of it."
Rumberger said that although preparations have been underway for months, the final frenzy of activity started Aug. 1, when the staff was allowed to begin moving in. Even as the final work was being done on countertops, and vending machines were being installed, thousands of textbooks were delivered. The school will have 812 computers, 237 printers and about 100 white boards.
So far, Rumberger said, the only complaint he's heard is from a parent concerned that a stallion was a sexist mascot. In the end, the principal decided that the students liked the name and that it would stay. "I said, 'A stallion is a horse, and we'll let it go,' " he said.
One morning in mid-August, Rumberger, wearing a polo shirt bearing the South County logo, strolled through the school watching as crews installed tile near the doors and greeting parents and students who stopped in. Boxes filled with supplies -- from plastic foam food trays to videotapes to brooms -- lined the hallways. When one door in the wrestling room wouldn't open properly, Rumberger quickly notified a staff member, who assured him the problem already had been discovered and would soon be fixed.
"The last month is like an intricate dance," Rumberger said. "Things need to happen at a certain time for something else to happen. The tempo gets faster, and the steps get harder."
In one classroom, Donna Rea helped two other parents pull yards of bubble wrap off desks and chairs. At the same time, her son, David, who will be a junior, practiced football outside and her daughter, Megan, who is starting ninth grade, drilled with the field hockey team.
"I can't wait for the school to open, and I want it to be ready," Rea said. Although her family had mixed feelings about leaving Hayfield Secondary School, she said, "this is the future."