On a swath of dirt off Sycolin Road in Loudoun County, school officials have broken ground on a new campus that will house a state-of-the-art building and a high-caliber math and science program that some hope will help keep the county’s top math and science students in the school system while forging a new model for STEM education.
The $86.5 million Academies of Loudoun campus, which will serve 2,500 students and is set to open in fall 2018, will combine three magnet programs in a space designed to encourage interaction and collaboration among students. The district plans to relocate the Academy of Science, the Academy of Engineering and Technology and the Monroe Advanced Technology Academy, the county’s vocational program, to the site. All three programs are part-time, meaning students take core courses at their base high schools and take specialty science, math and technical courses within their respective programs.
The new campus will allow the existing Academy of Science, now housed in a wing of Dominion High School, to double its capacity, offering more students the opportunity to take part in an elite science program close to home.
The move could keep Loudoun’s top students in the county rather than sending them to Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ), a regional magnet and perennially one of the nation’s top public schools. TJ draws Northern Virginia’s top students to its rigorous program, and 99 percent of its graduates go on to attend four-year colleges. The school regularly sends graduates to elite colleges; the Class of 2015 had 191 of its students accepted by the University of Virginia, according to TJ.
Loudoun paid $3.3 million for 248 students to attend TJ last year, and that figure does not include the cost of transportation. Eric Hornberger, chairman of the county’s school board, said he hopes to eventually stop sending Loudoun students to TJ so the local tax funds can be invested in homegrown programs instead.
“If we have available space and capacity to accommodate students, why not take that money and invest it in our programming?” Hornberger said.
Three years ago, the school board considered severing relations with TJ after the Fairfax County school system asked neighboring systems, including Loudoun, to chip in millions of dollars to help pay for a $90 million renovation of the high school. Loudoun board members said then that they hoped to build a similar program to keep top science and math students in the county.
Thomas Jefferson Principal Evan Glazer said he does not believe expanding the Academy of Science will threaten the applicant pool at his school, where just 1 in 6 applicants is accepted. About one-sixth of the school’s 1,800 students come from outside Fairfax, which is the 10th-largest school district in the nation and has a large local talent pool.
“Offering a new program in Loudoun will provide STEM learning experiences for many more students,” Glazer wrote in an email. (STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.) “The highly qualified applicant pool for TJ is deep and if some students choose a new Loudoun STEM school as an alternate, there will still be excellent students attending TJ.”
The Academy of Science, founded about a decade ago, is already immensely popular in Loudoun and turns away hundreds of applicants who want to take part in the program’s project-based approach to math and science. This year, more than 800 students applied for 68 slots in the freshman class. George Wolfe, director of the academy, said many students apply to both TJ and the Academy of Science, and while he loses some to Fairfax County, some decide to stay.
Wolfe said he is excited to expand the program so more students can take advantage of the academy’s unique offerings.
For now, he is limited both by space and a desire to keep classes small.
“There’s plenty of talented kids we could be taking,” Wolfe said. “The dilemma we run into is class size. In order to do research, we need relatively small class sizes.”
The academy is housed in a single wing of Dominion High with 11 classrooms, and teachers have struggled to meet the equipment needs of its enterprising students. One teacher’s classroom is now dominated by a homemade wind tunnel, Wolfe said.
When the Academy of Science moves to the new campus, it ultimately will be able to offer twice as many seats. And students will have the opportunity to work on projects with students from the Academy of Engineering and Technology, started this year at Tuscarora High School, and the long-standing Monroe Advanced Technology Academy, the district’s home for what is traditionally known as vocational education.
Monroe Principal Tim Flynn said the new campus will expand the possibilities for student projects. It could, for example, give students with training in building trades and welding to work with those designing contraptions and conducting experiments.
“The students within those programs have the chance to work together to take research and to take ideas from a simple concept phase to a modeling phase to a phase where you can actually build it,” Flynn said.
The campus represents a radical departure from a traditional high school building. There will be no wings. The school will have spaces with high ceilings and specialized “maker spaces,” where architects hope students will be inspired and enabled to build new projects. The school system broke ground on the building in late June.
The firm that designed the building, Stantec, drew inspiration from research campuses and rooted the design in the school’s vision of integration and collaboration.
“We were able to translate this vision that we had into this very cool building,” architect Derk Jeffrey said.