The Fairfax County School Board’s governance committee is recommending that the admissions policy for the county’s most elite high school be reviewed and possibly amended.
The committee will make its recommendation regarding admissions at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (known as TJ) to the full board at its next work session Oct. 15.
During a meeting this week, the committee, chaired by Dan Storck (Mount Vernon), discussed revising Policy 3355 to make the admissions process more competitive. If the plan moves forward, a new admissions policy would take effect for next year’s applicants, the future students of the class of 2018.
School Superintendent Jack Dale said at the governance meeting that the task of finding the area’s brightest young minds is not easy.
“It’s hard to predict how they will perform three or four years down the road,” Dale said. “I mean, they are humans. There are so many things changing in their lives.”
The board members opted to review the school’s already rigorous admissions process after reports came out last spring that TJ teachers had found some freshman students were struggling in math and science.
In a letter to the School Board, a group of TJ teachers wrote that the school’s math entrance exam tested applicants at a sixth-grade level.
The teachers wrote that such a low level of proficiency was not the right way to identify the county’s top eighth-grade math wizards.
By possibly amending the school’s policy, the board could make the standards for admission more difficult. Board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) said only the brightest math minds should attend TJ. She was concerned that the proportion of students at TJ taking the most challenging math classes had become stagnant over the years.
The number of TJ students taking calculus AB has grown significantly. The number of students taking calculus BC, however, has remained flat, said the school’s principal, Evan Glazer.
“We shouldn’t even see kids taking calculus AB,” McLaughlin said at the meeting.
The governance committee members at the meeting reviewed the policy one paragraph at a time, talking through it line-by-line.
The group stopped several times to discuss this paragraph:
“It shall be the policy of the Fairfax County School Board to operate a high school for science and technology for qualified Fairfax County Public Schools students in order to provide increased educational opportunities for those who have demonstrated high achievement, aptitude, commitment, intellectual curiosity, and creativity in mathematics, science and technology.”
The words that were discussed the most extensively were “aptitude,” “commitment” and “intellectual curiosity.”
“Those are hard to measure,” said Deputy Superintendent Richard Moniuszko.
Aptitude specifically seemed to be the most troublesome. Is aptitude the same as achievement? Or is it more like ability? Is it the measure of a student’s capacity to get better at something over time?
“It can mean a lot of different things,” Storck said.
At one point, McLaughlin said that perhaps another magnet school — similar in its composition to TJ, except for the best students in the arts and humanities — should be founded in Fairfax.
The notion got nods around the table. It’s an idea that’s been tossed about for some time but has not gained a lot of traction, mainly because it would cost so much. The school system is potentially facing a multimillion-dollar shortfall in the next budget year.
The governance committee’s main objective was to review the school’s policy and make recommendations to the full board about what the next step should be. The committee agreed that the policy is worth examining at length with all board members.
One looming question remains, as board member Kathy Smith (Sully) pointed out: “What do we want this school to be?”
It will be up for the full board to decide — and soon.