Twice in the last six years, Alexandria's ethnically and economically diverse T.C. Williams High School has pulled off a minor miracle: It has won the Virginia Science Bowl, beating out Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a highly selective powerhouse in Fairfax County that attracts some of the brightest science minds in Northern Virginia.
In an impassioned meeting Wednesday night, Alexandria parents and educators debated a plan that some fear would make such unlikely victories even more unlikely.
When Thomas Jefferson opened 20 years ago, Alexandria's School Board decided against participating, citing the cost and concern that T.C. Williams, the city's only public high school, would lose its top science students.
The issue has resurfaced periodically since then, and now the district's Talented and Gifted Advisory Committee has proposed a four-year pilot program that would allow two students per year to attend Thomas Jefferson.
Last year, Thomas Jefferson admitted 450 of 2,634 eighth-graders who applied for its Class of 2008, allotting spaces based on test scores, grades, recommendations and the size of their district. About 86 percent came from Fairfax County, 6 percent from Loudoun County, 5 percent from Arlington County, 3 percent from Prince William County and 1 percent from Falls Church. Tuition for out-of-district students, $10,560 this year, is paid by their home districts.
Addressing the School Board's curriculum committee Wednesday, Alexandria parents, teachers and other community members discussed whether, as one put it, "the schools are about the kids or the kids are about the school."
Supporters of the plan argued that so few students would be accepted to Thomas Jefferson that it wouldn't affect T.C. Williams. For the rare prodigy, though, Thomas Jefferson could offer such subjects as superconductor applications and DNA structure, they said.
Because Thomas Jefferson is a state-funded "governor's school," supporters added, Alexandria taxpayers are being denied a service for which they are paying. Some said that families might move out of Alexandria to gain access to Thomas Jefferson and argued that T.C. Williams would not be weakened by allowing students to apply.
"I think if we really believe that Thomas Jefferson looms out there as the great destroyer of T.C. Williams, then we have a bigger problem than Thomas Jefferson," parent David Hawkins said.
But others said the change could upset the balance of brain power at T.C. Williams, siphoning off some of its best students and depriving others of role models.
Some argued that specializing in one subject isn't the best thing for young people and noted that Thomas Jefferson lacks the diversity on which T.C. Williams prides itself (most Thomas Jefferson students are white or Asian). They also argued that T.C. Williams's more sparsely populated advanced science classes could be threatened.
Chris Sharp, who was part of T.C. Williams's Bowl-winning team in 1998, said his Advanced Placement physics class had only three or four students that year. "If you take out one or two kids, are you really going to offer it to the others?" he asked.
Principal John Porter did not speak at the meeting but said he opposes the plan. "I feel strongly that high school is a time to broaden experiences," he said. "I feel that we can provide kids with what they need in a competitive environment to be successful at the college level."
A similar battle has been waged in other districts. Arlington, which originally opted out of Thomas Jefferson, began allowing a limited number of students to attend in 1995, then in 1997 it lifted the limit. Last year, 21 Arlington students were accepted.
Arlington School Superintendent Robert G. Smith said that since the change, district scores have risen, not slipped, but that the district has had fewer National Merit scholars.
The Alexandria School Board's curriculum panel will meet March 28 to consider whether to recommend the change to the full board.