Alexandria school board considers letting students attend Thomas Jefferson

By Julia Brouillette

School board members are weighing sending students to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, an elite magnet school that educates some of the region’s top scholars.

Thomas Jefferson — or TJ, as it is commonly called — is a regional governor’s school in Fairfax County. Established in 1985, the institution focuses on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The magnet school is funded by the state as well as participating jurisdictions. Alexandria City Public Schools, with more than 13,000 students, is the only district in the region not represented at the well-known institution.

If Alexandria opts in, Thomas Jefferson will only admit 14 students per class year, adding up to around 53 students by the 2017-18 school year. But not everybody is comfortable with letting ACPS students leave the district.

“We have 13,000 kids that we have to worry about, and right now a lot of them are not doing that well and that has to be corrected,” said school board member Pat Hennig. “And to be honest with you, I don’t know that we’d have 14 kids pass the entrance exam.”

As a governor’s school, Thomas Jefferson extends yearly invitations to neighboring districts that have not yet agreed to participate. There are 19 state charter schools scattered throughout the commonwealth, but Thomas Jefferson is the only one that Alexandria could partner with.

The ACPS talented and gifted committee developed the proposal and urged board members to consider the benefits of partnering with Thomas Jefferson.

“These schools are specifically designed to meet the unique learning needs of very advanced learners,” said Adele Morris, who heads the committee. “This is an incredible opportunity, but Alexandria so far has never participated.”

Under the proposal, ACPS would pay the Fairfax County district about $213,000 for the initial 14-student enrollment, a portion of which would go toward school renovation costs. By 2018, ACPS would pay upward of $943,000 for 53 students. School officials say transportation of students — an expense not included in the payment estimates — may add $22,000 to $46,000 a year to the final cost.

Students at T.C. Williams — the city’s sole high school — have mixed feelings about opening enrollment to the magnet school. Charlotte Clinger, who served as one of two student liaisons for the school board and was salutatorian for the class of 2013, is on the fence.

“I really have — as I think many people do — conflicting feelings about it. Because on the one hand, I love T.C., and I personally could not imagine having had a better experience anywhere else,” she said. “But on the other hand, I was more of a humanities person, and it is an undeniable fact that TJ definitely has some really great resources for kids who are more interested in doing STEM or something like that.”

Despite feeling content with their high school, the majority of the T.C. student population leans toward giving other ACPS students the opportunity to attend Thomas Jefferson, said Clinger.

Jennifer Choi, a junior, agreed.

“I know it is kind of difficult to get into because of the entry exams, but I think people would take the opportunity just because they want that higher means of education,” she said.

The school board will discuss the issue again tonight.

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(9) Readers Comments

  1. I am deeply offended by Hennig’s comment. TC students have been accepted to Dartmouth, Northwestern, Yale, Columbia, U of Chicago, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Wash U, Davidson, Amherst, Middlebury, Haverford, and many other top universities and liberal arts colleges over the past 3 years. How dare you say that Alexandria City does not have 14 students capable of passing the exam!

    • Seriously, that was such an offensive thing to say.

      • The remark might be offensive, but that doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. TJ’s admission rate is around 15% right now, lower than some of the schools mentioned. And I don’t think TJ’s admission process gives as much credit for non-academic factors, such as race or socioeconomic status. (I don’t know, though.)

        Does Alexandria have 14 students capable of passing the TJ admissions test? Almost certainly. But are some of those kids in private schools and not interested in attending a STEM-based school? Probably.

  2. I would like to know that if we are being asked to pay a per student price or a set price for all slots? Would ACPS be expected to pay the full amount even if only half of the slots are filled by ACPS students? Also, would the slots be open for private school students to attend?

    • If I understand correctly, all Alexandria residents would be eligible whether in private or public school. Hennig’s comment, while offensively incorrect, may be a reflection that at least some, and maybe most, Alexandria students taking advantage of TJ would otherwise attend a private school. It is a thorny issue: on the one hand, why should ACPS (and taxpayers) pay for a student it otherwise would not have to educate because their parents chose a private school; on the other other hand, why should citizens who are residents and taxpayers like everyone else be declared ineligible for a public benefit — one does not forfeit rights as citizens because children attend a private school.

  3. Tuition is charged on a per student basis. I think it is around $13,000. Further complicating the proposal is the fact that TJ is embarking on a major renovation…..and wants to charge participating jurisdctions their fair share of the capital costs. This has prompted some jurisdictions to consider dropping out of TJ (Loudoun is considering this). Several years ago the Alex Sch Bd voted to send 2 students to TJ…..then several months later they reversed that vote. I believe Haunches is correct that any Alex resident could apply to TJ……so kids who would be going to a private school (in lieu of going to TC) could apply for a spot. Quite frankly, not an easy decision to make.
    http://www.acps.k12.va.us/superintendent/board-reports/20130308-attachment4.pdf
    http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-01-29/local/36617175_1_board-members-school-systems-prince-william

  4. I cannot believe the comment Hennig made about not having enough students who could pass the entrance exam. There are many very bright students in ACPS and I’m pretty sure all 14 spots would get filled. As the previous person commented, there are students who attend very prestigious universities after graduating from TC. Yes, the fees are hefty, and I understand that they may not want to pay them. However, Hennig’s comment about filling the 14 spaces was extremely unprofessional and damaging. She should be ashamed of herself. Hennig owes the city’s students an apology at the very least.

    • Dear Linda: I’m surprised by the ton of you comment, it misses the essentials. An admission to TJHS is not about “filling spots.” It is much more. It is about out-competing at least the “13 other” contenders – they are all not only smart, very smart but totally determined and well prepared for the entry exam – this takes lost of time and hard work. Enrolling in TJHS is not an entitlement; it is a trophy – and a marker for his/her future.

      Good Luck!

      Karel

  5. Does anyone know what happened after all? Is there any public document available -which states decision and justifications? I have searched everywhere and called the Board, but still cannot find it. (the person I spoke to thinks that they decided not to send students to TJ). I have been living in the city of Alexandria for almost 15 years, and have attended some of the hearing meetings on the city development plans, etc, and feel puzzled by how the debate on such critical issue is not open to the residents. Or is it? Was there a hearing where the residents could voice their views and concerns before the decision was made once again? Who is really making a decision on this issue?

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