June 1, 2012

The view that newly entering classes at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology are too soft on math and science is a hoary one. I entered the school a mere five years after its founding and was already subject to such skepticism. I was privileged, as I had a customized delivery system of this opinion in the form of my brother, who graduated four years ahead of me. But is it really true that Thomas Jefferson is not for all? If not, why not? Do the students make the school, or does the school make the student?

TJ’s objective was a thought experiment when I was attending, and there seems to survive some residue of identity crisis. In his May 27 Local Opinions column “The new Thomas Jefferson? It includes remedial math,” physics teacher John Dell asserted that the institution was designed for “promising STEM students,” though my presence there could challenge that notion. As one who wasn’t particularly inspired by science, technology, engineering or mathematics, I was given the impression that TJ’s role was to take the intelligence I possessed and train it to an acceptable level of aptitude. It succeeded well enough that I tested out of all STEM requirements in college. It didn’t occur to me until now that such an investment in me could be considered wasted. I certainly do not think that the excellent humanities programs I enjoyed at TJ were wasted on my STEM-savvy classmates. As such, while I sympathize that Dell’s job is harder with lesser students like myself, I ask that he nevertheless take up the challenge to teach them.

The fact that we still engage in debate over the proper way to identify and nurture talent is no surprise to me. The advantages of going to a school such as TJ are compelling enough that competing interests will battle, which comes with the territory of attending, managing and teaching at such institutions. We should remember, however, that we are basing such high stakes on the test-taking skills of an eighth-grader — a young and mutable mind, indeed.

I did not end up creating any wealth whatsoever in the STEM field, as those whom Dell so justly lauds did. Yet my STEM-focused high school education indubitably paid dividends to me. STEM drives much of our society’s progress and discourse, and I am thankfully not so entirely ignorant of their mechanics as to be left out. I credit TJ with this and am grateful for my experience there, insofar as one can ever be grateful for the experience of adolescence.

Myra Park, New York

It takes a very dedicated educator to so openly criticize the high school that has been his home for 23 years. John Dell has done an admirable job of summarizing some serious concerns, that people associated with Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology have been discussing in earnest during the last year.

The word “remediation” should rarely, if ever, be used in conjunction with the type of student that is allowed to enter this prestigious school. With the ever-increasing population of Northern Virginia, the skills necessary to get into TJ should be rising, not falling. Each class should logically be slightly stronger than the class before.

If Fairfax County Public Schools are going to admit prospective students without a strong STEM educational background to TJ in coming years, do they also plan to change the name of the school to more accurately reflect the student body?

David Dunn, Fairfax Station

The writer is the parent of a graduating Thomas Jefferson High School student.