Editor: Nearly 1,800 of the brightest students in Northern Virginia are fortunate to be able to attend Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, ranked as our nation’s best high school by several magazines and organizations. Yet only about 2 percent of the students at the school come from low-income families, while nearly 29 percent of the students in the school districts it serves are considered low-income and are eligible for free and reduced-prices school lunches.
Thomas Jefferson is working to open its doors wider to academically qualified low-income students. To help it do so, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, where I serve as executive director, awarded the school a grant of nearly $100,000 in 2015. The grant is being used to provide two years of support for a program that provides academic enrichment programs to prepare outstanding low-income students in grades 7 and 8 to gain admission to Thomas Jefferson and succeed once admitted.
Unfortunately, economically disadvantaged families could be hurt by a proposal before the Loudoun County School Board to seek approval from the Virginia Legislature to charge students in the county for bus transportation to Thomas Jefferson. Charging such a fee could prompt some parents to pull their children out of the magnet school or stop their children from even applying.
While the school district could waive the transportation fee for low-income students, as some school board members have advocated, there is no assurance that such waivers would be approved and remain in place over the years.
In addition, when low-income students must seek a waiver they can be stigmatized and made to feel like going to Thomas Jefferson is a privilege reserved for the more affluent. If the students and their parents feel like they don’t really belong at Thomas Jefferson, fewer will try to gain admission.
This is unfortunate at a time when our nation needs to take advantage of all the brainpower we have available, regardless of a student’s family income. As I’ve learned time and time again at the Cooke Foundation, which has awarded high school and college scholarships to nearly 2,200 students in the past 16 years, some families of very modest means produce some absolutely brilliant children.
Harold O. Levy, Executive Director
Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, Lansdowne