As Thomas Jefferson adds help for poor English skills, some Va. parents fume

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 20, 2011; 10:39 AM

As Northern Virginia became home to more immigrant families in recent decades, Fairfax County officials say they started programs to teach English as a second language at every school - about 200 of them. Except one.

The holdout was the region's hallowed magnet school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, where many assumed that steep admissions standards rendered such a program for English language learners unnecessary.

But next year, at the behest of the school's teachers, Thomas Jefferson - often called TJ - plans to hire its first instructor to cater to a growing number of students who thrive in math and science classes but sometimes struggle with English.

The decision to hire the half-time teacher has reinvigorated a debate about TJ's mission - namely, how heavily the school's admissions policy should favor math and science standouts over well-rounded applicants with superior reading and writing abilities.

"It sounds kind of like an oxymoron. How can they not know the language and still get into TJ?" said School Board member Elizabeth Bradsher, who added that the need for English-language services has raised questions about the school's admissions process.

TJ is a powerhouse when it comes to math and science. In 2009, 25 of its students were admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and hundreds got into other top schools. That reputation has attracted a flurry of recent immigrants from South Korea, China and India, some of whom learn about TJ long before landing in the United States.

News reports in Korea tell of the school's accolades. The country's embassy devotes a section on its Web site to describing TJ's admissions criteria, translated into Korean. As of last year, students of Asian descent outnumbered white students at the school. Black and Hispanic students made up less than 4 percent of the student body.

Applicants must be residents of one of six Northern Virginia school districts during their eighth-grade year in order to gain admission as freshmen. TJ is the only selective, specialized high school in Fairfax; there is no equivalent school that focuses on the humanities.

"We are a math, science and technology school, and we might get students who excel in those areas but still have some language troubles," said Evan Glazer, the school's principal.

Fast-paced classes

TJ is revered by many not only for its traditional academic strengths in math and science but also for its all-around academic rigor - as a springboard for top students with a diversity of interests. That dynamism is reflected in the school's faculties in English and social science departments, which feature rare combinations of Ivy League graduates, lawyers and PhDs.

But some of those teachers have complained to the administration and the School Board in recent years that a number of students struggle to keep up with fast-paced classes when they are reading and writing-intensive.

"I tell my teachers at the beginning of every school year that English is my second language, that sometimes I forget the articles and that I might need extra help," said senior Yena Kim, 18, who moved to the United States from South Korea when she was in fifth grade. "I want to give them a sense of who I am."

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