This year’s Loudoun eighth-graders may be the last class to get a chance to apply to and attend Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria.
In a split vote late Tuesday, the Loudoun County School Board voted to renew its annual agreement with Fairfax County to send another class of freshmen to the prestigious governor’s school for the 2018-2019 academic year. That is the same year that the long-awaited Academies of Loudoun opens, which will provide more seats for students interested in rigorous magnet programs.
In the years leading up to the opening of the Academies of Loudoun, some school administrators, School Board members, and county supervisors have described it as Loudoun’s version of a gifted high school program. They also pointed out that the county would no longer need to pay millions a year to send its top-performing students to a neighboring school division.
The Academies of Loudoun, set to open next fall, will house three of Loudoun’s existing magnet programs: the Academy of Science, the Academy of Engineering and Technology, and the C.S. Monroe Technology Center. It will allow the Academy of Science and Monroe Tech to enroll twice as many students as they do now.
But the majority of the School Board voted to spend $4.3 million to send at least one more class of students to TJ. That equates to $17,435 per student. It includes tuition and transportation costs, plus an additional $2,074 per student to help cover the school’s $76 million renovation. The price tag for the 2018-2019 academic year is $600,000 more than the current year because 25 more Loudoun freshmen were selected.
“We’re giving these students an opportunity of a lifetime to go out and do the best they can in a school with an outstanding reputation,” Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles) said. The majority of students who will attend TJ would otherwise attend high schools in the Dulles District.
School Board members Eric Hornberger (Ashburn), Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) and Tom Marshall (Leesburg) showed support for allowing the Loudoun students currently attending TJ to finish out their high school career there, but stop sending a freshman class beginning next fall.
“We are developing a gifted program for our students so we can keep our gifted students in Loudoun,” Turgeon said. “We need to be investing our Loudoun dollars into Loudoun schools and Loudoun students.”
“It’s time that we make a statement that we believe in what we’re doing in the Academies of Loudoun—AET and AOS—which is why we’re investing so heavily in them. We’re investing over $100 million in construction costs in a fantastic facility that allows us to more than double program opportunities for our students,” Hornberger said. “We need to invest not only our treasure but our talent. They [TJ students] make our high schools stronger, they make our Academies of Loudoun stronger.”
Board Vice Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) pulled up the TJ website from the dais and pointed out that the application deadline for 2018-2019 freshmen was Sept. 29. That was enough to change the votes of board members who were on the fence about whether to cut ties with TJ now or wait a year.
“[Eighth-grade] students have already applied. Money has already been spent,” Debbie Rose (Algonkian) said. “I want to make sure that we are not pulling the rug out from some kids who have spent time preparing for the 2018-19 school year. I don’t think that’s right.”
For the first time, the contract requires that school divisions notify Fairfax County by June 1, 2018, if they want to discontinue sending students to TJ for the 2019-2020 school year.
Several board members said they want to give community members more advance notice ahead of any vote that could sever ties with TJ.
“That is something we need to keep on our calendar,” Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) said of that June 1 deadline. “So we can have an open discussion with the parents and students ahead of making that decision.”