Is your school so bad? Is TJ so good?

I have written many columns about Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County. Some readers have suggested I stop. They ask: Why is one school so important?

Here’s the situation. I am an education writer who focuses on the best teachers and best schools, as measured by how much value they add to students’ educations and lives. Jefferson is the most selective high school in the country. By many benchmarks — faculty quality, course level, equipment — it has to be considered among the best.

That is irresistible to me. Now I have found a Jefferson graduate, Chelsea Slade, who has given me a way to drag into my Jefferson obsession everyone who didn’t go to Jefferson, which includes me and almost all of mankind.

Slade sent me an e-mail challenging my view that it doesn’t matter whether you go to Jefferson or not. I think if you are as smart as the people who get into the school, you will find everything you need at any of Fairfax’s other fine high schools. Because the quality of high schools around here is so good, I would even argue that someone wanting a Jefferson-quality education can get it at most of the public and most of the private schools in the Washington area.

Jefferson does not make the students it admits more persistent, more intuitive, more charming or more gifted than they are. Jefferson provides great teachers, many learning options and smart, interesting classmates, but so do many other schools in this region that attract Jefferson-quality students.

Slade graduated from Jefferson in 2006 and from Brigham Young University in 2010, and she is a medical student at George Washington University. She said the environment at Jefferson is more conducive to achieving academic and career goals such as hers.

Here are her reasons, based on her impression of other schools, such as Langley and Marshall, which one of her siblings attended:

“1) Drug use at Jefferson is much less widespread, as far as I am aware, than at many other high schools. I felt my peers better understood the negative consequences of drugs and were smart enough to choose not to use substances. At other schools, the peer pressure to use drugs would have been much stronger.

“2) Students at Jefferson use all of their spare time to study — lunch, between classes, in study hall, etc. At other schools, students are more inclined to gather and talk and gossip. I know when I have been in similar situations, despite being a well-motivated student, it’s much easier for me to give in and stop studying and start talking with friends. Whereas at Jefferson, people really did expect their peers to let them study during free time.

“3) Students at Jefferson don’t tease each other for doing well. When my sister achieves a great score on an exam, she is mortified if anyone sees, because of the teasing and rude remarks that her peers make about her (‘nerd,’ ‘tight-wad,’ etc.). At Jefferson, we got excited for each other’s high scores, and pushed ourselves harder to do better than our peers on the next exam. It was certainly a competitive environment, but that helped us all achieve much more than a degradative or rude environment would have done.

“4) My peers at Jefferson had very high self-esteem. Eating disorders, self-mutilating behavior, and other things linked to low self-confidence in adolescents were much less frequent than what I have seen in other high schools. This environment of feeling good about ourselves helped us all feel and do better, be proud of our accomplishments, and help each other in achieving our goals.”

There are little or no data to buttress her view or mine. To the many observant teens out there, is your school so bad? Is Jefferson that good? Comment on my blog at washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

 
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