Pr. William Schools Join to Design Regional Science/Technology Magnet

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Prince William County, after years of longing, may finally get a selective magnet school to serve as a mini-rival to Fairfax County's prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

The Prince William, Manassas and Manassas Park school systems recently won a $100,000 state grant to design a regional "governor's school" that would open by fall 2010 and specialize in math, science and technology.

The yet-unnamed school, which would have rigorous admissions requirements, would differ in key respects from Thomas Jefferson, a full-day governor's school in the Alexandria section of Fairfax that draws students from across Northern Virginia. Students would still attend neighborhood schools, traveling to the new magnet campus only for high-level classes.

The school would serve, at least initially, about 300 juniors and seniors from the three school systems.

Launching a governor's school in Prince William would raise the profile of the state's second-largest school system and answer complaints from families whose children don't apply to Thomas Jefferson because of the long commute.

Experience has shown that a governor's school appeals to many Prince William parents, no matter how long the drive. Almost 200 Prince William students applied to Thomas Jefferson this school year, and 12 were admitted, said Gail Hubbard, Prince William's supervisor of gifted education and special programs.

Michaelene Meyer, deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Manassas, said the new school could hold classes at the George Mason University campus in the Manassas area or at a centrally located campus, such as Osbourn Park or Osbourn high schools.

"We're looking at partnering with George Mason to make sure our curriculum is aligned to upper-level college courses," Meyer said. "Down the road, [their professors could] serve as instructors and mentors."

Meyer said she hopes the three school systems can complete the planning and win approval from the state Board of Education by summer 2009. Virginia has 18 governor's schools with a traditional academic year. They receive state funding, have tough admissions requirements and specialize in such subjects as the humanities or math, science and technology. The new Prince William school, if approved, could resemble the partial-day Mountain Vista governor's school that recently opened in Fauquier County.

Martina Boone, a Prince William mother, said she would consider a new governor's school for her eighth-grade daughter, Hailey, a budding engineer, who in the fall will attend Battlefield High School in Gainesville, which specializes in technology.

"Battlefield is good enough for a number of kids, but you need to provide a more in-depth and enriched environment to build the science and technology leaders that this country is going to need," Boone said. "It's very difficult to do that in classrooms and schedules where everything is so packed in."

Hailey, 14, succinctly described the value of a governor's school: "This would be perfect for my college application."

Others are skeptical of the prospect of a new governor's school. Some parents worry it would lure top talent from Prince William's existing schools -- each of which has a specialty -- and make it harder to fill high-level courses at those schools.

"You can only have so many programs going before you start feeding off one to feed another," said Michelle de Stefano, whose 11th-grade daughter, Rima Janusziewicz, attends Potomac High School in Dumfries, which offers the college-level Cambridge curriculum. "As it is now, there are courses at Potomac that the school can't offer. If they have a governor's school, then all those kids get lost there."

Gail Drake, an information technology teacher at Battlefield High and member of a governor's school planning committee, said parents should not worry about possible reductions in upper-level courses at their base schools. The governor's school, she said, would promote strong teaching methods, which would influence instruction at the base schools and make their toughest classes more enticing.

"Students are more likely to sign up for a class where they know they'll be successful," Drake said.

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