Washington-Liberty, Arlington’s First High School
As the school nears its centenary in 2025, it carries on the legacy of Washington-Lee High School, the school’s name from 1925-2019. The brief history below and the adjacent historical timeline sections illustrate the last 96 years of continuity and change.
“This school in which you will receive your education has a nationwide reputation for excellence resulting from the past achievements of its students. You have a right to be proud of this reputation, but with this pride goes a responsibility for measuring up to the high standards of citizenship and scholarship.” – Mr. O. U. Johansen, principal (1961-1976)
As Washington-Liberty (W-L) approaches its centenary, the school continues to add to the many historical milestones that have created one of the most enduring public high school legacies. The school was noted for many historical “firsts” in its early years, and it welcomed students from around the country and the world shortly after opening its doors. In the subsequent decades, the school embraced its legacy as a progressive institution. Of course, W-L’s history would not be complete without acknowledging the challenges it faced. W-L’s guiding principles through the decades can be summed up by this phrase from one of W-L’s most beloved teachers: “FOVEAT DIVERSITATES” Cherish the differences — Mabel Allen, W-L faculty from 1924-1968
Before Washington-Lee, area high school students attended public schools in nearby Washington, DC or in what is now the City of Alexandria.* In 1922, Arlington County citizens voted for school bonds to cover the cost of a new centrally located high school; it was the first time bonds were used to finance school construction in Virginia. For its first year in 1924 the yet-to-be-named school operated out of the Ballston and Cherrydale Schools. The investment became a reality when Washington-Lee High School opened for students on 6 October 1925. It took its name from Washington & Lee University.** The original three-story Beaux Arts style school building faced an open athletic field, today’s Arlington War Memorial Stadium.
W-L grew in size as did Arlington County, requiring an expansion in just five years. The school soon became known for its academic and athletic accomplishments. The W-L Cadet Corps, the first JROTC in Northern Virginia, included a significant number of students. W-L’s crew team was formed in 1949 as the region’s second oldest scholastic rowing program. A rivalry with Alexandria’s George Washington High School was reflected in the annual football game for the Old Oaken Bucket, a Thanksgiving Day tradition for over three decades. Symbolizing the student body’s spirit of unity during the turbulent 60s, the 1966 boys varsity basketball team won the state championship as the first integrated team. W-L became a model for other schools throughout Northern Virginia and the state.
Academically, W-L was one of the first area high schools to offer advanced, college-level classes. When national high school rankings grew in popularity, W-L was rated as the “No. 2” high school in the country in the 1960s and also was named the state’s “grooviest high school.” As foreign immigration to the region increased, W-L and nearby Stratford Junior High School*** offered the first ESOL classes in 1967; over 10% of the student population was foreign born. In 1985, W-L was honored for its academic achievements by the U.S. Department of Education. In recognition of the school’s diverse, high-achieving student population, President Barack Obama addressed the student body in 2012.
Many graduates have achieved success in the arts, science, business, the military, government, athletics, and more. In entertainment alone W-L boasts Oscar, Emmy, and Tony winners; other alumni have won Nobel, Pulitzer, Olympic, World Series, and Super Bowl awards.
Notes on the School’s Names:
“the central high school” and “Ballston High School” (1924-1925):
- According to Sally Loving’s history of W-L, school board minutes, and other accounts, the yet-to-be-named school was unofficially called “the central high school” in its first year of operation, the 1924-25 school year.
- Rival George Mason High School in Del Ray used “Ballston High School” unofficially to describe the school in its yearbook.
Washington-Lee High School (1925-2019):
- The name Washington-Lee High School was formally adopted by the Arlington School Board on 31 July 1925.
- According to the “History of Washington-Lee” in the Generals’ Aide Student Handbook, published in the 40s-70s: “The name was taken from Washington and Lee University; however, the and was omitted and a hyphen substituted to distinguish one from the other.”
- School nickname is W-L, pronounced “WnL.”
Washington-Liberty High School (2019-Present Day):
- As institutions around the country reevaluated names and symbols, a public process in 2018 helped to craft a new school name that would respect the school’s rich history and inspire future generations of students.
- The Arlington School Board voted to change the school’s name to “Washington-Liberty High School” effective 1 July 2019. Students and teachers participated in the adoption of updated school colors and logos.
- School nickname is W-L, pronounced “WnL.”
- George Mason High School opened in 1919 in the Del Ray community. It was the first and only high school in Alexandria County; previously, some county residents paid tuition to City of Alexandria high schools. The county was renamed Arlington the following year. In 1925 George Mason moved into a new building; and with W-L now open, an inter-county rivalry developed. In 1930 the City of Alexandria annexed the Town of Potomac, which contained the community of Del Ray, from Arlington County. George Mason High School, now in the City of Alexandria, closed soon afterwards. The old George Mason High School building is currently the Mount Vernon Community School, operated by Alexandria City Public Schools.
- A number of W&L University traditions were adopted by W-L, such as the honor code, the generals mascot, the nickname (pronounced “WnL”), and the school seal. The original school seal was designed by Francis David Millet, a Union veteran and artist helped who was last seen rescuing women and children during the sinking of the RMS Titanic. (More information about the school’s early years can be found in History of W-L, 1924-1939 and in other school publications.)
- Stratford Junior High School reopened on 3 September 2019 as Dorothy Hamm Middle School.