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.