Dear Extra Credit:
Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology is constantly mentioned in the paper for one reason or another. But what about students who are outstanding in other areas, such as the fine and performing arts?
Does Fairfax County have any kind of "magnet" school for arts-oriented students and if not, why not? The District has the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Why not Fairfax County?
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Priscilla C. Marsh
Washington Mill Elementary
and Carl Sandburg Middle School parent
You have raised an issue that has been around for a long time in Fairfax County. By my reckoning it is more powerful than ever, at least among some parents and students. This is the search for a second TJ.
There are actually two issues here. The first one, which does not appear to be your personal concern, is whether the county should create a second magnet high school for science and technology so that hundreds of the eighth graders who are rejected by TJ each year despite having grades and test scores just as good as those accepted could attend an equally good school. Talk of a Jefferson clone has accelerated since TJ began experimenting with a new admissions system that gives more access to low-income and minority students.
The second issue is the one you raise: Why can't Fairfax County have magnet schools for students with interests other than science and math?
Fairfax County schools spokesman Paul Regnier said there have been many such proposals over the years. Some people suggested a fine arts and performing arts school. Some have suggested a magnet school for social sciences or some other academic area. "There are good arguments for many of these proposals," he said. "For instance, an 'international school' makes a great deal of sense in the Washington area with all our international resources."
The key difficulty, Regnier said, is space. "TJ was created during a time when the student population was at a relative low, especially in the area of the county in which it was established," he said. "There is no way that a regular Fairfax County high school could be replaced by a specialized school today or in the foreseeable future."
But before Fairfax residents start feeling sorry for themselves, let me suggest a reality check. High schools are my personal obsession. I have visited scores of them around the country and collected information on thousands more. The resources of the Fairfax County school system are so great, in terms of teacher quality, parent background, student motivation and teaching equipment, that each of its 23 non-magnet high schools has at least one special program -- many of them are called academies -- that is as good as, if not better than, similar programs at schools in other districts that bill themselves as magnets.
The District created the very fine Duke Ellington School of the Arts because it had an empty building for such a magnet and because it lacked the resources to produce sophisticated arts programs in many of its other high schools. But Fairfax has splendid arts instruction and production in many of its schools, including the Academy for Communications and the Arts at Fairfax High School. In a follow-up e-mail, you told me the performing arts program at West Potomac High is also good.
I like Regnier's idea of an international school, but it should also be said that Fairfax County has eight high schools, more than any other district in the country except Chicago, with the International Baccalaureate program. I just published a book, "Supertest: How the International Baccalaureate Can Strengthen Our Schools," which is mostly about how IB energized Fairfax County in general, and Mount Vernon High School in particular. If you want to count some of the county's blessings, that is a good place to start.
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