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Friday, November 30, 2012

Renovations of Thomas Jefferson HS to start this spring

A rendering of TJ after the renovations.
It’s great that Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ), one of the top high schools in the nation and a breeding ground for the next generation of scientists and innovators, is going to be renovated.

It’s too bad, however, that the school, just two miles from the center of Annandale, serves a miniscule number of students from the Annandale/Mason area.

The renovation will reflect TJ’s focus on inquiry-based research and collaborative learning, said Principal Evan Glazer. Construction could begin as early as spring 2013, and the project should be completed by the end of 2016.

The interior will be completed gutted, and the traditional high school design of long hallways lined by classrooms for specific subjects will be replaced with a new layout featuring interdisciplinary, flexible learning spaces connected by open areas where students can collaborate on research projects. The entrance of the building will feature a Jeffersonian dome and two-story research labs.
The estimated cost of the renovation, $85 million, comes from a Fairfax County school bond approved by voters in 2011. There is an additional $8 million needed for specialized equipment and technology not provided by FCPS, says Glazer. The TJ Partnership Fund has a capital campaign to accrue those resources through corporate partnerships and donations.

The specialized equipment is needed because TJ offers a large selection of advanced science and technology courses, such as DNA science, neurobiology, marine science, bionanotechnology, computational physics, robotics, microprocessor system design, and much more.

President Obama examines a robot created by TJ students while visiting the school in September 2011. [White House photo]
Because the school is a region-serving Virginia Governor’s School, it draws the highest-achieving students from Loudoun, Prince William, and Arlington counties and the city of Falls Church, as well as Fairfax County. Seventy-five percent of TJ students come from Fairfax, while the other jurisdictions are assigned slots based on their student population.

TJ receives about 3,000 applications a year and admits only 480 incoming ninth-graders. In 2011-12, just a few FCPS middle schools accounted for the vast majority of TJ freshmen. Seventy-six students came from Rachel Carson, 72 came from Longfellow, 51 were from Rocky Run, and 43 came from Kilmer.

FCPS does not release data on the number of students from a middle school if it’s less than 10. That means all of the middle schools in the Mason District—Poe, Glasgow, Jackson, and Holmes—sent anywhere from zero to nine students to TJ last year. Frost, which serves some Annandale students, sent 18.

According to Terri Breeden, FCPS assistant superintendent for professional learning and accountability, admissions decisions are aimed at selecting students who have “the aptitude, achievement, and passion for math and science.” In addition to performance on an admissions exam, FCPS also looks at past academic achievement, essays, and recommendations by teachers.

The schools that send the most students to TJ serve more affluent, less diverse populations, where there are a lot of highly educated, ambitious parents willing and able to pay thousands of dollars for tutors and consultants who specialize in TJ admissions.

The school board is re-evaluating the admissions process in light of concerns about the lack of African-American and Hispanic students at TJ. The school’s enrollment is overwhelmingly white and Asian. The male to female ratio is 55 to 45.

Meanwhile, FCPS is undertaking outreach efforts to get more students from underrepresented groups and middle schools to consider applying to TJ. “The real issue is broadening the application pool,” Breeden says, and FCPS staff need to talk to students at every middle school and encourage them to apply.

“We’re beginning to see some increases in the Route 1 corridor,” she notes. There’s also been an increase in the number of students requesting waivers of the $90 application fee, which indicates an increase in the number of less-well-off applicants.

“They’re always saying they’re trying to do more outreach. I haven’t seen anything new on this,” says school board member Sandy Evans (Mason District). She did note that there will be an information session at TJ Dec. 5 on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers for Latino students and their families. [See the blog events calendar for details.]

Federal law prohibits public schools from using race as an admissions criterion. The school board could, however, establish geographic criteria, by ensuring a minimum number of students from each middle school, for example, or capping the number of students that could come from individual middle schools. Whether the board would have the will to do that, however, is an open question.


  1. It is obscene that FCPS is planning to spend over $80 million to turn TJ into a mini-U.Va. complete with a Jeffersonian dome while, just miles away, Falls Church HS continues to deteriorate and fall into disrepair.. Have these people no shame? How about spreading it around a little to those in need?

    1. Agreed. FFax Co. has yet to impress me in any way.