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Loudoun may sever relationship with Thomas Jefferson High School

For years Loudoun County students with an aptitude in math and science had the option to apply to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a selective secondary school in Fairfax. But thanks to the costs associated with renovating the building, local students may no longer have that option.

Under the new Capital Improvement Program, Thomas Jefferson is set to receive $88.9 million in renovations – and Fairfax wants participating school districts to foot part of the bill.

Thomas Jefferson was founded in 1985 with the goal of improving science, mathematics and technology education. Rather than construct a new facility, the school opened in a previously used high school building from 1964. The school has received only minor renovations, with the most recent repairs coming in 1989.

Since Thomas Jefferson's inception, the school has been open to the surrounding school divisions of Loudoun, Prince William and Fauquier counties as well as the cities of Arlington and Fairfax.

Fairfax County School Board members reason, if other schools utilize the school, why should they not pay for some of the renovation costs?

“All participating school districts should equally share expenses incurred,” said Ilryong Moon, chairman of the Fairfax County School Board. “The capital costs are part of the education.”

According to Sharon Ackerman, assistant superintendent in Loudoun County Public Schools, the cost would be $7.8 million, or $50,000 at an average of 157 kids, with payments beginning in the 2014-2015 school year. School boards already pay an out-of-county tuition fee for non-Fairfax students; Ackerman says the the sum is generally around $11,000 per head.

About a sixth of Thomas Jefferson's student population of 1,800 is culled from outside Fairfax County. But with new educational opportunities developing within their own counties, school boards in Loudoun and Prince William are wondering if it's still cost-effective to export top-students to Fairfax.

“From my perspective, the only reason we'd continue with TJ, given the cost, is if we felt that we could not provide a similar caliber education,” said Bill Fox, a member of the Loudoun County School Board. “And I don't feel that's true.”

Loudoun, Fauquier and Prince William counties all offer enrichment programs, with Loudoun boasting the four-year Academy of Science and Prince William and Fauquier offering two-year governor's schools for upperclassmen.

Fauquier County has decided to sever its relationship with Thomas Jefferson and attributes the decision to cost issues and the presence of its own governor's school.

"We don't have any students who were going to attend this year. We had been talking about [cutting ties] as our governor's school grew. We've been thrilled with Mountain Vista Governor's School," said Donna Grove, chairman of the Fauquier County School Board.

"And it's a lot of money," Grove continued. "When we're looking to cut everything, that seemed like an easy thing to cut."

Still, Loudoun School Board members have expressed concern about uprooting students.

“First and foremost, I don't think any of us [in the school board] are willing to accept an outcome that pulls any students out of TJ,” Fox said. “To pull them out now, when we may not have space at a similar program, is categorically unfair.”

At this point, generating a payment plan is in its early stages and Moon says figures are “rough estimates.” Fairfax has told neighboring school districts they'll receive an official notice in the spring with charges and possible payment plans.

But Fox says the School Board may have to act quickly, with a two- year enrollment agreement due no later than October.

“We may have to make a decision soon, unless we're willing to send out another round of acceptance letters this year,” Fox said.


Per Mr. Fox “...From my perspective, the only reason we’d continue with TJ, given the cost, is if we felt that we could not provide a similar caliber education,” said Bill Fox, a member of the Loudoun County School Board. “And I don’t feel that’s true.”..Sorry, Mr. Fox, you simply have no idea.  At this time, and for the foreseeable future, Loudoun County can not and DOES NOT provide a similar caliber of education, for the most-talented STEM-oriented students at the high school level, and most certainly for those in the lower schools.  This perspective is not based on “feelings”, like Mr. Fox conveys, but on both explicit academic statistics and experience with STEM students. Loudoun simply has insufficient attention, political will, investment or philosophy when it comes to its rapidly-growing (but soon to leave, and not return) advanced, or “gifted” student opportunities.  Only 16 students from “Loudoun” were named to the National Merit Scholarship Finalists this past year - 50% actually attended TJHSST. Over 1000 students applied to AOS this year - only 65 were admitted, most from the “waitlist” after those students also accepted to TJ decided to go there instead. How does Loudoun, exactly, offer a similar caliber of opportunity, with these numbers of students hoping and applying for better, and not receiving it?  Time to wake up and smell the coffee, Loudoun County - it’s put up or shut up time.

The capital costs seem small compared to the capital costs of expanding AOS by adding rooms to a new western high school, for example.

I have mixed feeling about TJ as an educational model for gifted students. From personal experience I think the alternative day model that leaves kids grounded in their home schools is better than commuting to Alexandria every day.
The disadvantage of expanding the AOS model is that the curriculum is too focused on biotech because the major funder is HHMC. AOS just doesn’t do Computer Science, for example. TJ has a much richer curricular options.

The wealth of courses available free from elite universities via download would equal or exceed a TJ education if a laboratory environment were created that allowed the kids to do hand-on real science with peers. It is the access to lab equipment and a strong mentoring program that is missing from a local self-study option. It would be pretty easy to replace the TJ computer lab equipment with cloud computing.  The medical, chemical and engineering labs, however, would be really expensive to replicate. (A creative approach might be to negotiate rental of the TJ labs on weekends for gifted Loudoun students who otherwise study locally.)

Those that move to this area specifically because they want their children into TJ would move to Fairfax draining our communities of some of the brighter students should the TJ option be eliminated.

OK.  I am going to point out the elephant in the room.

TJ has a top 10 (even higher if you ask others) high school ranking in the entire nation.  Parents want their kids to go to TJ for that and other reasons.  That will be the BIG difference between TJ and anything any other county puts up.  Even if the other counties have their own programs, it will take years (or maybe never) to get it up to a top 10 level.

So, parents of kids in non-Fairfax counties, think about that.  Does your county have the will and the money to make your county’s program that good?  Do you want them to spend that kind of money and effort to do so?

Time to let your Supervisors know because they are going to be spending your tax money one way or another.

Loudoun should fund it’s own version of TJ and partner with tech companies in the county for funding. Considering the looming shortage of a skilled workforce, this investment is a Win/Win for all parties.

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