Should Loudoun continue to send high-achieving gifted students to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria or should resources be diverted to building up local alternatives? That is the question.
To judge from a recent survey conducted by Loudoun County Public Schools, and reported in this week’s edition, at least 48 percent of those surveyed think our students should be studying locally. Only 19 percent believed utilizing the Fairfax magnet high school should be our long term solution.
The issue was brought to the foreground recently when Fairfax County Public Schools notified participating jurisdictions that they would be required to help renovations at the magnet school. Thomas Jefferson hasn’t seen a renovation since 1989 and is currently 200 students over its capacity. Funding for multi-jurisdictional renovations isn’t sufficiently addressed in the Governor’s School program.
Loudoun’s portion of the project would require a payment of $7.75 million or an additional $1,847 per student over the next 33 years. More than 200 students currently attend the magnet school. But this is now likely beside the point after an advisory opinion from the Virginia Attorney General’s Office indicating that the school does not have the authority to divert funds to Thomas Jefferson.
With an inability to assist in this financing, it’s questionable how viable the renovations will be and whether or not Fairfax taxpayers will want to support Loudoun students at the school. The problem may be more dire than we imagine after a recent Fairfax School Board meeting identified that their gifted program is possibly over-identifying students.
There is a growing consensus that the Loudoun’s future lies with a major expansion of its existing Academy of Science program – currently housed at Dominion High School and allowing students to attend their home school every other day.
For a long time, taking advantage of the Governor’s School program was ideal; it was cheaper than building something internally and the school remains excellent. However, with the growth in Loudoun – and the rising expectations for educational excellence put forth by a generation of highly-educated, tech-savvy parents – Loudoun will have soon have no choice but to expand their options for a local, public school alternative to Thomas Jefferson.
Our primary concern should be the impact on the students. U.S. News and World Report has ranked Thomas Jefferson as the best public high school in the nation. And while a Loudoun school for science and technology would certainly not supplant them – at least not right away – the local replacement would have to provide a suitable alternative to ensure that there was not a net loss of educational opportunity for gifted students.
The Loudoun School would need to have its own facility and have room for significant growth over time. Ideally, it would offer both full-time (like Thomas Jefferson) and part-time options (like the Academy of Science). The good news is that Loudoun certainly knows how to build schools. As while there is certainly work to be done to improve, there are existing partnerships with local science and technology businesses and local colleges. Both would be needed to partner early on.
The deficit early on would be experienced academy-level instructors, the number of research and mentorship opportunities and the lack of a national reputation such as Thomas Jefferson has achieved.
Unfortunately, there is a cost attached to it and it’s likely to be considerably more than what we would potentially pay as part of the Thomas Jefferson renovation. Coming out of a recession where significant cuts to school funding per student were already made, it’s questionable whether there’s the political will to create a school of that quality. The current School Board was elected largely on a message to curb spending.
A Loudoun option will need to be tackled. It’s a question of how long we should send our local tax dollars and brightest students across the county line.