Students, Parents Speak Out: Keep TJ Option

Loudoun County School Board members listened to a standing-room only crowd of public speakers Tuesday night, most on the subject of an upcoming vote regarding whether to renew a contract that allows Loudoun students to attend Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria.

The overwhelming message from the speakers, the majority of whom were parents and students at Thomas Jefferson and the Academies of Loudoun, was to keep the TJ option alive.

The School Board must inform Fairfax County Public Schools by June 1 if it decides to cancel the one-year renewal contract. A vote scheduled for its next meeting on May 28. Students already accepted into Thomas Jefferson this fall for the 2019-2020 school year won’t be impacted by the vote, as the changes would not take effect until the 2020-2021 school year. There are 247 Loudoun students attending the Fairfax school this year at a cost of $3.8 million, and 83 have been accepted into the program for the 2019-2020 school year. Those costs do not include the transportation, estimated at half a million dollars for fiscal year 2019 and $540,000 for fiscal year 2020.

Advocates for keeping TJ as an option said at the very least, School Board members should provide a phase-out plan spanning two, five or even 10 years if they decide to cancel the contract.

The option of not renewing has become an annual debate for school board members in recent years, including during the construction of the Academies of Loudoun in 2016. What’s different this time around is the Academies of Loudoun is now fully operational, having opened a 300,000-square-foot facility in August. School Board members indicated a close vote may be in store when debating the issue during its last meeting on April 23.

More than 50 of the 60-plus public speakers at Tuesday’s board meeting spoke in favor of keeping the option open for Loudoun students.

Vbhi Rapala, a rising freshman at TJ, said that many students from Loudoun want to attend the Fairfax school because of the “multitude of options and opportunities” available there, despite a one-hour bus ride each morning and afternoon. “Education is worth the high cost,” she said.

Mihika Dusad told school board members that Loudoun students apply to TJ despite the competitive environment and commute-time sacrifices because they “want to be stimulated.” Describing a challenging middle school environment where not many other students would get involved with group learning activities, Dusad said that “TJ was like a beacon in the dark” for her inquisitive nature. She also said there will be less spots available for students who want to be challenged. “If you remove TJ as an option, the competition will be too severe. Please hold on to TJ,” she said.

“We must have the option to attend it now and into the future,” said student Ananya Enganti. “As kids, we are told to prepare for the future,” she said, asking the board to “provide us with a plan” to phase out the school over numerous years if they don’t renew the contract. Taking TJ away puts more stress on students, as the same amount of people would be competing for fewer openings, added student Naisha Patel.

“Why should we give up the option of a top-ranked school when many people around the country don’t have this rare opportunity?” asked student Hema Chanamolu.

Parents joined the students in advocating to keep the TJ contract in place. Narender Gubda, whose son is in fifth grade, said that any additional costs to send students to TJ is a “very small price to pay for access to one of the top schools in the country.”

Another parent, Michael Powers, pointed out that TJ and Loudoun’s academies are intentionally different. “That’s why we need the option. We need the choice,” he said. The cost of sending a student to Thomas Jefferson is actually close to the same or may be less than the academies, Powers asserted, referring to preliminary findings in an effort led by board member Chris Croll (Catoctin) that she posted on her Facebook page following the meeting. Croll said on Wednesday that administrators are working on a more detailed comparison of the costs of TJ vs. the academies that will be presented at the May 28 meeting.

Removing TJ will rob Loudoun students of opportunity, Powers continued. “My daughter’s one of them. Don’t take away her shot.”

“I’m really surprised that this is an option for the board—should we keep TJ or not?” said Arvind Katpatal, a parent. “You should be providing as many options as possible.” He went on to suggest that instead the school board should go further in the other direction and look for more partnerships like the one with TJ, to expand options for Loudoun students.

“Our country was built on freedom. We should have the freedom of choice,” said William Burcato, whose daughter graduated from TJ in 2005. He noted its “life-changing impact” that gave her the opportunity to get into John Hopkins University and start a successful career.

“We are a nation of opportunities, and these kids should be given this opportunity,” added Barjinder Sidhu.

aparker@loudounnow.com

2 thoughts on “Students, Parents Speak Out: Keep TJ Option

  • 2019-05-16 at 9:53 am
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    If they keep funding students for TJ, it should be based on the free or reduced school lunch program standards. If you don’t qualify for that, no free ride. The vast majority of these students are in households that can easily afford to pay their own way. The public should not be forced to fund a private school.

  • 2019-05-17 at 8:54 am
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    The payment of about $17,000 per student attending TJ from Loudoun plus busing is a deal for those who qualify to attend but they sacrifice a lot of time and effort to attend. If not for TJ it is highly likely that these students would also qualify for AOS so less students would get an advanced science and math education. Should that be the point of the school board review? How can we limit by a few hundred the educational potential of about 80,000 students? That doesn’t sound like critical thinking to me as a former two term school board member whose middle son could have attended TJ but chose AOS. The foundational problem here is the failure of the school board members to mandate the Superintendent offer the transcript numbered AOS first two year course to all high schools in Loudoun. This would allow over 10 times as many students to benefit without ANY incremental cost. The first two years of the AOS Program is an inquiry based 3 year integrated math and science course which can be supported by the equipment already in all Loudoun high schools. One of the key reasons I am running for independent Chair of the BOS is precisely that the BOS needs to take citizen beneficial positions when providing $1.3 billion in yearly funding to an organization that seems to prioritize having a centralized bureaucratic program that can be promoted as an achievement more than providing as many students as possible the life altering benefit of inquiry based learning which is why AOS is so valued. It is well past time school board members understood what was in the best interests of Loudoun rather than wait for the Superintendent to tell them what they should vote in favor of as evidenced by some of the quotes in this article. Be grateful TJ is an option and expand first two year course at AOS to all high schools!

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