Is it Time to Cut Ties with TJ? New In-House Academies has Loudoun Asking

During a groundbreaking ceremony in June marking the start of construction of the Academies of Loudoun, at least one person voiced what many were likely thinking.

When the $115 million magnet high school opens in 2018, “we’re going to bring all our kids home from Thomas Jefferson,” Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) said, with many nodding in agreement.

Loudoun taxpayers cover the $14,887-per-pupil tuition to send roughly 250 students to the prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County each year.

Meanwhile, county and school leaders have worked for years to secure funding for the Academies of Loudoun. When it opens in two years, it will house three magnet programs, expanded versions of the existing Academy of Science and C.S. Monroe Technology Center, and the new Academy of Engineering and Technology.

As construction on the academies progresses, the Loudoun County School Board has not officially broached the subject of whether to keep footing the bill for students to attend school across county lines. But on each side of the debate, it seems there are people who assume both will happen.

Last month, the School Board renewed its contract with Fairfax County to continue to send students to Thomas Jefferson. It requires Loudoun, and the other jurisdictions that send students to the governor’s school, to pay $14,887 in tuition, plus $2,074 for freshmen through juniors to cover the cost of the school’s $76 million renovation. Loudoun also spends about $429,200 each year to bus students to the high school in Alexandria.

“That comes out to $18,661 per student. That’s ridiculous,” School Board member Tom Marshall (Leesburg) said in a recent interview.

He was the lone vote in opposition of renewing the contract. He believes it was previous School Boards’ intentions to provide an academically challenging secondary school within county borders in lieu of Thomas Jefferson, but the current board has not yet made its intentions known.

“I think it’s time we had the discussion,” Marshall said. “I think many people assume we’ll cut ties with TJ, and that’s a reasonable assumption. But now, I have detected a feeling that just because we’re opening the academies, that may not stop us from sending kids to TJ.”

Chris Croll, who four years ago formed the nonprofit Loudoun County Parents of Gifted Students, says there are a lot of parents in Loudoun hopeful that Thomas Jefferson will remain an option for their kids.

“It’s one of the best high schools in the country and that’s attractive to all of us who have students who are academically oriented,” she said.

Plus, she added, Thomas Jefferson has offerings that the Academies of Loudoun will not have, at least initially, including courses like quantum mechanics. It is also designed for students to attend full time, as opposed to Loudoun’s Academy of Science where students attend every other day while remaining enrolled at their home high schools.

“Yes, there is a cost to send students to TJ and it’s significant,” she said. “But I think the more educational options we offer to our students in Loudoun County, the better.”

Daniela Silitra, a Leesburg parent, is already grooming her 12-year-old son to get into a magnet high school. She’s enrolled him in a Curie Learning after-school program designed to prepare him for a higher caliber secondary school. He will likely apply for either the Academy of Science or the new Academy of Engineering and Technology because they align better with his dream jobs of becoming either a doctor or a movie producer.

Silitra says she sees both perspectives regarding Thomas Jefferson. As a taxpayer, she thinks it’s too expensive. But as a parent, it’s a good opportunity for kids. Plus, if Loudoun no longer sends 250-plus students to Thomas Jefferson, it could make it that much more competitive for her son to make the cut into the Academies of Loudoun.

“It’s really not clear cut. It’s not an easy decision,” she said.

School Board member Debbie Rose (Algonkian) agrees it is certainly worth considering keeping that door open to Loudoun students. The Academy of Science and Thomas Jefferson have different focuses; 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.

“So they meet very different needs,” Rose said. “It’s certainly an opportunity you don’t want to shut off to students, but at the same time, it is just a few students that we’re sending there.”

She suggested forming a stakeholders’ committee or sending parent surveys to provide the School Board feedback ahead of a decision.

If county school leaders decide to end its relationship with Thomas Jefferson, Silitra suggested enacting the change years from now, so that students who have worked to prepare themselves for the difficult entrance exam are not caught off guard. “That wouldn’t be fair,” she added.

Marshall wants to have the conversation sooner rather than later, especially as the School Board begins to talk about next fiscal year’s budget.

“We have not resolved what we’re going to do,” he said, “and I want some assurance that we’ll see some savings by terminating this relationship with TJ and Fairfax County.”