For 27 years, Loudoun has exported hundreds of its brightest students across the county line to Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax, and with them goes its top test scores and more than $2.5 million a year.
County leaders have talked about eventually creating a similar program for Loudoun students, but unofficial word that the school district may get a portion of the bill for a $90 million renovation of the prestigious governor’s school has rushed that conversation.
This week, School Board members debated the possibility of no longer sending the county’s students to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, known as TJ, and whether an expanded version of Loudoun’s Academy of Science would fill the void for rigorous science, math and technology education.
The debate is framed by a long list of unanswered questions, and a tight deadline. The Loudoun School Board must decide whether to sign another two-year enrollment agreement with Fairfax this October, and board members have yet to receive any official communication from the Fairfax County School Board on what it may be charged for the renovation. Some board members have heard Loudoun may have to pay $8 million; others have heard $11 million.
“The payments would start in the 2014-2015 school year, so I think they’re thinking this is a year’s notice to all the school districts,” Sharon Ackerman, Loudoun County Public Schools assistant superintendent of instruction, told board members at their meeting Tuesday.
Loudoun will likely be asked to cover a large portion of the project’s bill because, just behind Fairfax, the county sends the most number of students to TJ—203 Loudoun students are enrolled this year. Prince William, Arlington and Alexandria school districts also send its students to the school.
School Board member Bill Fox (Leesburg) called the news of the capital expenditure the “$11 million straw that broke the camel’s back.”
“As is, [for every student we send to TJ] we’re stretched to a point that I think is difficult to justify,” he said of the nearly $15,000 per student it cost the school system annually—just less than $13,000 in tuition, plus $2,000 in transportation costs. The annual per student cost in Loudoun’s schools is $11,865.
“The only way could possibly justify that is if we knew for sure that it was providing a level of education that we could not provide here in Loudoun County,” Fox added, “and I don’t believe that’s the case.”
Fox is among other several board members who have voiced their support for ramping up the Academy of Science’s offerings when the program’s new campus opens in 2018. The facility, to be built along Sycolin Road south of Leesburg, will be combined with C.S. Monroe Technology Center under the name Advanced Technology Academy/Academy of Science.
At their meeting Tuesday, School Board members got a glimpse of just how high TJ has set the academic bar from a presentation by Ackerman. The two schools each have a special focus, she said. The Academy of Science, located on the Dominion High School campus in Sterling, focuses on scientific research and Thomas Jefferson High School’s curriculum spans across the fields of technology, computer science, mathematics and science, with courses such as artificial intelligence—one and two—and oceanography and geophysical systems research.
“Just looking at science, Thomas Jefferson offers 35 very specialized science courses, and the Academy of Science offers 11,” Ackerman told board members. “With more students we may be able to offer more courses.”
School Board member Thomas Reed (At Large) has doubts Loudoun can replicate a TJ, with its millions of dollars in donated equipment, including “high performance computers that we could only dream of.”
“It would be impossible to do what they do,” he said. “The business community is twice as large in Fairfax as it is here.”
No matter what the School Board decides, it’s made it clear students currently enrolled in TJ will be able to stay through graduation. But that still leaves some worried the transition between pulling out of TJ and expanding the Academy of Science could find a few class of students caught in the middle without a comprehensive, accelerated high school program.
Take Rebecca McFadden, a seventh grader at Blue Ridge Middle School, who is already talking about following in her mother’s footsteps and attending Thomas Jefferson High School.
Her mother Leslie McFadden, a 1993 TJ graduate, agrees that sending Loudoun students to Fairfax cost taxpayers a hefty sum. “But on the subside, if that opportunity is not available for my daughter, I would be disappointed. She would thrive in the TJ environment that I had,” McFadden said, noting that the magnet school in its early years offered rigorous curriculum in all course areas, including the arts and humanities. “If they could introduce more technology rather than just labs at the Academy of Science, it would be the best of both worlds for her.”
School board members who want to explore expanding the Academy of Science have talked about turning it into a program for just juniors and seniors during the transition years, and offering prep courses for those eyeing a spot at the academy at their home high schools. Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) asked Ackerman’s staff to work with the Curriculum and Instruction Committee to study how to expand the Academy of Science, even beyond what is planned for on the new campus.
He also suggested the School Board bring the county Board of Supervisors in on the discussion, “because this is a significant commitment for the county, regardless of what happens with TJ.”