Allure of Magnet Schools Wins Over Nearby Districts

Jessica Maples, 16, a junior at Battlefield High School wanted to apply to Thomas Jefferson School for Science and Technology in Fairfax but was dissuaded by the long commute.
Jessica Maples, 16, a junior at Battlefield High School wanted to apply to Thomas Jefferson School for Science and Technology in Fairfax but was dissuaded by the long commute. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 29, 2006

For Jamahl Stokes of Prince William County, the decision to attend the Thomas Jefferson School for Science and Technology 30 miles away in Fairfax County came down to this quandary Suffer more than two hours of commuting round trip for the privilege of attending one of the nation's best high schools? Or enroll in the neighborhood school 15 minutes away near Manassas?

Jamahl went with T.J., as it is known, for his freshman year. Then he changed his mind. Too many nights spent awake until 1 a.m. because of football practice, the horrendous commute and piles of homework. Too many days sleeping in class.

"I definitely would have preferred having the school in Prince William," said Jamahl, 15, now a sophomore at Osbourn Park High School. "Some people get discouraged because when they hear about the prestige of T.J., they also hear about the commute, and they don't necessarily want to go through that."

Now, Prince William school officials are considering a response to the pleas of students like Jamahl and others who want a prestigious magnet high school, with exclusive admissions and a special focus on subjects like math and science, but located within the county.

Educators, parents and teenagers in Northern Virginia say there is a growing demand for exclusive magnet schools similar to Thomas Jefferson, a regional "governor's school" in the Alexandria section of Fairfax that admits fewer than 20 percent of applicants. They believe such schools are more desirable because their high-level math and science courses and stringent application process make them look formidable to university admissions officers.

Prince William's proposal comes two years after neighboring Loudoun County created its own exclusive magnet school, the Academy of Science. It screens students based on grades, performance on a standardized test and a creative writing sample. The school on average admits fewer than 30 percent of students who apply. Academy Director George Wolfe said it is the only public school in Northern Virginia aside from Thomas Jefferson that has rigorous academic admissions criteria for the entire student body.

Unlike students at Thomas Jefferson, those at the Academy of Science split time between the magnet school and their home school. Applications to the program have risen in its first two years from 205 to 230. But Wolfe said he did not want the school to be known as a "T.J. West or T.J. North."

"Parents are driving the magnet school idea because they want their kids to have an edge over what they see as the competition," he said. "Kids feel like this is a safe haven where they're with colleagues, not just with fellow students."

Most Thomas Jefferson students come from Fairfax, the region's largest county. Prince William, with more than 70,000 students, has the second-largest school system in Northern Virginia and the fifth-largest in the Washington area. But it now sends only 49 students to T.J., according to the school's figures, while Loudoun sends 109 and Arlington County 83.

Some Prince William officials say establishing a school like Thomas Jefferson would help the county retain its best students and enhance the school system's appeal to an increasingly wealthy and well-educated demographic. The county system already has a slew of well-regarded specialty high schools that admit students based primarily on their interests. But sometimes its reputation suffers because it has lower average SAT scores than other large Northern Virginia systems.

"It's a matter of prestige," said Prince William School Board member Milton C. Johns (Brentsville), who joined with another board member in the fall to propose an exclusive magnet school. "Right now, we have a lot of students in our math and science programs, but they're not selective. We want to attract the best teachers and families. It also attracts us to businesses."

School administrators are studying the proposal. One idea is to build "schools within a school," perhaps in the western or central parts of the county. One of the schools on the campus could be an exclusive magnet for math and science that admits students based on grades and a test; another could be a standard neighborhood school; and a third could be what is known as a "traditional" school with strict rules and dress codes.

It could take a year or more for the school board to consider a detailed plan. But many parents and students already are intrigued, especially those who considered Thomas Jefferson but didn't apply.

Jessica Maples, 16, a junior at Battlefield High School in Haymarket, said she weighed Thomas Jefferson when she was in eighth grade but decided against it because of the commute. She added that she didn't want her social circle to be miles away in another county.

"I do cheerleading and play lacrosse, and it would definitely be hard to see people during the week and weekends," she said. "I think a lot of kids would attend or be serious about attending if it was closer, because it would give them a chance at a higher [level] of education but they would not have to fight the traffic and be away from family."

Meanwhile, the longer Prince William waits to offer a competitor to Thomas Jefferson, the longer it risks losing some of its top academic talent. Raillan Brooks, 16, of Manassas, who skipped a grade in school and is a senior at Thomas Jefferson, fits that profile.

If Prince William had an exclusive magnet high school when Brooks graduated from Stonewall Middle School in Manassas, he said he would have given it a serious look.

"It would have been appealing to me if the program had been established and if there had been a track record of performance," he said. "I'd look at the college acceptances, like if they were going to U-Va."

Was the commute worth it in the end? The three hours on a bus every school day for three years? Put it this way: Brooks just got into Yale University.

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