Alexandria school board considers letting students attend Thomas Jefferson

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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.