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High Expectations Yield High Achievement

High-end research in such areas as physics, electronics, and biotechnology is a way of life at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia. Representing a collaboration of the school district, the state, and the business community, the magnet school is designed to prepare students to function in a technological world. Included: A description of the Thomas Jefferson school curriculum.

Remember when a high school science project meant research on deciduous trees or a report on the flora and fauna of North America?

Some Virginia high school seniors now are tackling topics -- such as microelectronics, chemical analysis, optics and modern physics, and computer systems -- that sound more like course material at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology than typical high school subjects. Those student researchers attend Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a magnet school in Alexandria, Virginia.

Lessons from Our Nation's Schools

This article is part of an ongoing Education World series, Lessons from Our Nation's Schools, about education in different communities. Read other articles from the series:

Magnet School Helps Students Develop, Appreciate Different Talents

Reservation Schools Preserve Cultures, Boost Academics

More Than Reading Scores and Stereotypes: The Voices of City Teachers and Students

Founded in 1985, Thomas Jefferson was created, and is sustained with, the help of local businesses. Launched in an existing building, new construction was not needed to establish the program, which also is supported by the Fairfax County School District, the state department of education, community groups, and the governor's schools fund.

The release of the federal government's 1983 report A Nation at Risk, which cited weaknesses in the U.S. education system, spurred discussion in Fairfax County about a magnet school that centered around math and science. "The school and business communities thought this could benefit the [whole] community," says Richard Washer, the school's information technology specialist. At the time, numerous technology companies also were opening in Maryland; a magnet school was seen as an incentive for professionals considering moving to northern Virginia.

By 2002, Thomas Jefferson admitted students from four Virginia counties and two towns through a competitive admissions process. The school's aim is to prepare students with an affinity for science and mathematics for further study, although a technology career may not be everyone's goal. The school's curriculum, however, shows that, whatever their ultimate objectives, students will rise to the challenge of a demanding academic program.

Student Julia Lozos works on her senior project in a Thomas Jefferson lab.
(Education World photo)

"We're not expecting every student to be a scientist or technologist," says Washer, "but we want students to be able to think and to live in a technological world."


Students accepted into the program have above-average ability and interest in mathematics and the sciences. All students must complete elementary algebra before enrolling as ninth graders. Accepted students are exposed to technology in their first year; every freshman takes a course integrating English, biology, technology, and engineering concepts.

To graduate, students are required to spend their senior year working on a research project in one of the school's 12 technology laboratories. Projects focus on astronomy, chemical analysis, computer assisted design, computer systems, energy systems, industrial automation and robotics, life sciences and biotechnology, microelectronics, optics and modern physics, prototyping and engineering materials, video technology and communications, and oceanography and geophysics.

"We run an intense environment," Washer says. "We're finding better ways to deliver curriculum, we're trying to develop coursework that integrates and uses technology, and we're trying to develop students' communication skills. We're all about problem solving. We're less about answering questions than about asking questions."

Character education is also a focus at Thomas Jefferson. The staff starts the year with two weeks of activities and discussions about respect and tolerance. Among the topics highlighted are hall behavior, cheating, plagiarism, dress guidelines, and the school's honor code. Conducting oneself with respect, responsibility, and integrity is written into the school's plan and emphasized on a regular basis, according to Nina Pitkin, director of student services at the school.

Thomas Jefferson's approach to learning has produced impressive results so far: 99.9 percent of graduates go on to four-year colleges. Senior Greg Price of Falls Church, Virginia, was one student looking forward to a career in technology. By April 2002, he had narrowed his top college choices to the University of Virginia, Georgia Institute of Technology, and Carnegie Mellon University. Price applied to Thomas Jefferson because his brother attended the school and because "I am very into computer science."

Another senior, Julia Lozos, also from Falls Church, says that science is only one of her many interests. Dressed in a white lab coat and working in one of the school's many science labs, Lozos was busy dripping mercuric chloride onto daphnia, small, freshwater crustaceans, to see whether the chemical causes them to mutate. Although she enjoys the lab work, Lozos says, she plans to study music or humanities in college.

Interests among the students vary widely; students choose from more than 100 extracurricular activities. Because some students spend as much as four hours a day commuting to and from school, the school day runs from 8:30 a.m. to 3:50 p.m., with the last period set aside for extra-curricular activities. Hallways overflow with student artwork as well as posters highlighting research projects, notices for school plays, athletic events, and community service projects. "Help the Children of Afghanistan," one poster reads. Many students also are politically aware; both the Teenage Republicans and Young Democrats have chapters in the school, according to Price.

Because of their high level of achievement and wide variety of interests, some Thomas Jefferson students might have been considered "outsiders" at their home schools, Washer notes. "The tolerance level here for differences [among students] is remarkable," he says.


Senior Greg Price points out a list of accomplishments by Thomas Jefferson students.
(Education World photo)
Critical to the school's creation and to its continued success is a partnership fund, which includes businesses, parents, and community members, Washer adds. The school has about 80 partners. Some of the support they provide is monetary; businesses also provide student internships and faculty training.

"We try to learn from [those companies] where business is going," Washer says, so the school's curriculum can be continuously updated. "We have a reciprocal relationship with the business community. We try to look at what they will need five years from now and ask 'How can we deliver the [appropriate] curriculum?'"

Eric Peterson, a parent who served as the parent-teacher-student association president, also organized a PTSA business relations committee to help increase private-sector support for the school. "In many ways of thinking, it is the top school in the nation," Peterson tells Education World. "It also has been a boon to the economy. The business community has a major responsibility to support public education. There is a lot of unmet need. The more the business community shows its leadership, the more future leaders it will see."

As a parent, Peterson says, he is pleased with all aspects of the school. His son is a graduate and his daughter is a junior at TJHSST. "I like the sense of community, the quality of education, and the dedication of the faculty and administration. There also is a high sense of trust and competition. But the competition is more a sense of 'How can I do better?'"

Although Thomas Jefferson serves only a small number of area students, the curriculum developed at the school has been adopted at other area schools. Geosystems, a course that covers the natural sciences and involves a lot of computer research, was first required at Thomas Jefferson. The course is now mandatory in all county public schools, according to Washer.


Thomas Jefferson demands a lot from its students, even before they arrive on campus. Applicants take a standard admissions test in eighth grade; the 800 students with the highest scores on that test make the first cut. Those students then submit teacher recommendations, essays, and resumes for the second round of reviews. Finally, 420 students are admitted to the freshman class. This year, 2,700 students applied for 420 spaces, says Pitkin.

One priority is increasing the diversity of the student body. About 500 of the 1,662 students in 2002 were "non-Caucasian," Pitkin says. The class entering in fall 2002 had 29 additional students, from area schools that have been underrepresented in the past, she adds.

Washer notes that another current impetus is to develop a better system of tracking school alumni. "We know some have come back to the community to live and work," Washer says. School staff members would like to find out what professions those alumni have entered and where they have chosen to live.