Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said the robotics team at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology was limited to 11th and 12th graders. Ninth and 10th graders may also participate. The column has been updated.
The Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, the nation’s most selective public school, is a wonderful place to learn, but its admissions system has problems. Just ask Reston resident Benjamin Moore and his son Robbie.
In 2009, the Moores moved from Boulder, Colo., where the school system had rated Robbie gifted enough to accelerate three grades. Instead, he skipped just kindergarten. His parents assumed in Reston he would have a great chance to attend Jefferson. At age 12, he taught himself Latin for fun. He was valedictorian at Herndon Middle School. He got 96 out of 100 points on the Jefferson admissions test.
But he was not accepted. This puzzled his parents until they discovered idiosyncrasies in the selection system stemming from a long and lively debate. Success in academic subjects does not matter so much, they learned. Applicants need to impress the admissions committee with their passion for and creativity in science and math.
“His grades and test scores were only 35 percent of the weight towards acceptance,” his father said. “The rest was essays, activities and teacher recommendations. . . . He had no enriching activities because we could not afford any. He babysat his two younger sisters every day so his mom could attend nursing school at Georgetown on a scholarship. He cooked dinner for the family every night starting at the age of 12.”
“I was unemployed when we moved here,” the father said. “Camps, clubs, expensive tutors — forget about it. We were just thankful to be able to find an apartment and put food on the table once I started working.”
Three percent of Jefferson families are low-income. The admissions system, the Moores concluded, gave an advantage to people with money. The father said “expensive prep classes train kids to memorize 10 different canned essays to claim that they are interested in” science, technology, engineering and math. Policy changes last year kept passion for science as a factor in admissions.
John Torre, a spokesman for the Fairfax County school system, said wealth plays no role whatsoever: “Socio-economic status has no bearing on a student’s ability to gain access to TJ or any of our other programs,” Torre said.
Robbie’s parents became even more disenchanted when he took the SAT at age 15 and got a near-perfect score of 800 in reading, 800 in math and 760 in writing. Benjamin Moore filed a freedom of information request and discovered that only 35 seniors in the county did better. Jefferson has the highest public school SAT average in the country — 2194 — but most of its students did not best Robbie’s 2360.
Yet, as often happens to super-bright students who fail Jefferson’s unavoidably clumsy admission process, Robbie found his neighborhood school, Herndon High, had much to offer. “I think it was probably for the better that I went there,” he said. He loves playing tuba in the wind ensemble and sousaphone in the band, which has performed as far away as Hawaii. He joined Herndon’s robotics team right away, and the team has qualified for the national championship, earning some victories over Jefferson.
Robbie will have 15 Advanced Placement courses and four dual-enrollment college courses completed before graduation this spring. He got the top score on the AP English Literature exam without taking the course.
At Herndon, Robbie said, “there are some absolutely amazing teachers whose classes I loved,” as well as some not so good — also true of Jefferson.
Jefferson has never had enough room for all the super-gifted students who apply. Robbie thinks the admission process is too influenced by money, but the neighborhood schools are so good it doesn’t seem to matter. One sign of future success is the knack, while growing up, to find intellectual stimulation anywhere. Most of the Washington-area schools have helped make that happen, even for someone as extraordinary as Robbie Moore.