As Loudoun education leaders weigh whether to end the county’s ties with the prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology, they’re brainstorming how to boost the Academy of Science’s reach to fill any academic void.
Whether an expanded version of the 250-student Academy of Science could provide a learning environment that guides some of the county’s brightest students to become experts in scientific fields before they’re 18 took center stage at the School Board’s Curriculum and Instruction Committee meeting Wednesday.
“If you go too far beyond 500 students at the Academy of Science, you lose what makes the Academy of Science special,” Sharon Ackerman, Loudoun County Public Schools assistant superintendent of instruction, cautioned committee members Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge), Bill Fox (Leesburg) and Jennifer Bergel (Catoctin).
Exploring the expansion of AOS has picked up pace since the Loudoun County School Board got word that it may have to pay as much as $11 million of a $90 million renovation of Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax County.
AOS Director George Wolfe and Loudoun County Public Schools Science Supervisor Odette Scovel gave committee members a closer look at how AOS and Thomas Jefferson differ—in short, in-depth research is the bread and butter of the academy and Thomas Jefferson is a comprehensive high school that offers the full spectrum of courses.
“By the time they’re a junior, they’re in a full blown research project,” Scovel said. “At TJ, students don’t work on independent research projects until their senior year.”
That started the discussion on whether the academy should offer a more comprehensive program, and accept more students, when it opens its new campus in 2018. The facility, to be built on 119 acres along Sycolin Road south of Leesburg, will combine AOS with C.S. Monroe Technology Center under the name Advanced Technology Academy/Academy of Science. Under the current plan, the future campus will allow AOS to double in size with room for 500 ninth- through 12th-grade students who attend every other day.
To allow more students to take part in the AOS experience, and particularly if Loudoun ends its partnership with Thomas Jefferson, Fox asked Wolfe and Scovel about the possibility of teaching ninth and 10th grade students AOS courses at their home high schools, and then bus juniors and seniors to the new campus for the more advanced course.
One obstacle, Wolfe and Scovel noted, would be finding instructors qualified to teach the advanced sciences courses. Most science teachers get a general education in their field, but not an in-depth study of their field.
“Then we’re asking these teachers to come and guide kids through research experiences when they don’t have that experience themselves,” Scovel said.
Wolfe voiced concerns that a program divided on various campuses would leave behind the collaboration among students and teachers of AOS, which has been housed at Dominion High School since it started in 2005. He meets with teachers every day and modifies the syllabus as students advance or make discoveries in their research, he said. “That would be tough to do that if you can’t work one-on-one with them every day.”
Plus, he added, the science equipment needed is pricey. It cost about $500,000 to outfit just one AOS campus with research equipment, including a $60,000 microscope.
But Fox said the cost is all relative—half a million is cheaper than the bill the Loudoun could get from Fairfax.
School Board member Jennifer Bergel (Catoctin) also cautioned against splitting up AOS. “You have to keep the synergy there,” she said. “We’re not going to compete with TJ if we dilute what we already have at the Academy of Science.”
On the plus side, Wolfe added, AOS doesn’t have to offer the whole spectrum of high school courses because they take advanced English, history, foreign languages and psychology, among others, at their home schools.
“The classes these kids sign up for at their home high schools I’ll put up against any courses in the country,” he said, noting that he has some seniors who are taking five AP courses.
It’s not new news that the Academy of Science needs more space. Each year, more than 700 students apply and just 68 are accepted. “We have to really pick at the nit to get down to 68,” Wolfe said, adding that there are more than 100 students each year who would qualify for the program if he had the space.
Plus, if Loudoun stops sending kids to Thomas Jefferson that will mean about 200 more students competing for advanced courses each year.
School Board members have said current Thomas Jefferson students will continue to attend through graduation. They are still awaiting details on whether Loudoun schools can continue to send students to the governor’s school until an expanded version of AOS is completed, and if so, how much of Thomas Jefferson’s renovation costs Loudoun would have to pay.
Bergel said her priority is to make sure no student is left without either a TJ or AOS option. She said she continues to hear from parents who “are concerned about a gap,” between the county pulling out of Thomas Jefferson and a new AOS campus that can accommodate more students. “An eighth-grade student who is already filling out an application has every right to attend TJ. Families are counting on that option being there.”