Rising sophomore Nihita Manem, 14, estimates that she has three to four hours of chemistry homework each day — and it’s only July.
Nihita, of McLean, is one of about 100 students enrolled in a summer chemistry class offered by Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the Virginia Governor’s School for students gifted in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
During the school’s 24-day summer program, Nihita and her classmates will take 11 tests, then a final and their Standards of Learning exam in chemistry.
“It’s a lot of work, but all you need is time management,” Nihita said, adding that time management is a skill she previously struggled with but has picked up quickly this summer. “I’m taking [chemistry] to get ahead.”
Getting ahead is a common theme among the 549 students in summer classes at the high school. Classes, which began July 5 and end Aug. 5, are conducted five days a week from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. After school, students said they head home to hit the books, a necessity under the time-crunched curriculum.
Taking a summer class helps to accelerate students’ eligibility for enrollment in Advanced Placement classes and allows them more flexibility in scheduling electives, students said.
“I’m taking [chemistry] mostly to make junior year easier,” said rising sophomore Will Bradbury, 15. “If you take chemistry now, you can take AP Chem as a sophomore . . . [but] in the future, it’s a way to make life better your junior and senior year.”
Outside Thomas Jefferson, student summer school programs largely have been cut because of budget reductions approved by the School Board in 2010. While high school-based programs have been reduced, 1,953 students are enrolled in online classes this summer. Additionally, more than 250 students are signed up for summer SOL exam remediation and other testing programs.
Thomas Jefferson has seen enrollment surge this year by about 40 students, up 8 percent.
“Part of the reason [the School Board] didn’t cut ours is we’re completely self-supported,” Assistant Principal Mary McDowell said. Students attending summer school at Thomas Jefferson pay $820 for tuition and registration.
“If students qualify for reduced-price lunch, they receive a 50 percent reduction in tuition,” McDowell said. Students qualifying for the free-lunch program pay 10 percent of tuition.
The increase in enrollment this year might be because of a new financial literacy requirement for students beginning high school this year or later, McDowell said. The requirement is a state mandate, approved during the 2010 General Assembly session.
The summer program particularly has seen a boom in its world history class, which largely is made up of incoming freshmen, she said. This summer, Thomas Jefferson has eight sections of the course, with about 28 students per class.
“I think they sign up to make room for other requirements during the school year,” world history teacher Aaron Sacks said. “Some of the kids are making room for band, some for science and technology. . . . It’s a pretty even mix of those who are motivated and ambitious and those that want to get ahead, or a kid who struggles with history.”
Thomas Jefferson’s summer program is not for students who struggle to keep up.
“It’s not for everyone, but it’s for the best,” said Hadan Kauffman, a chemistry teacher. “We’re going at eight times the normal pace. Each day is eight classes. … Mornings, we’ll compress as much as we can [during lectures]. And then in the afternoons, we have labs.”
Although he thinks that some of the students take summer classes for the challenge, others really are focusing on the opportunity completing a class early can present, Kauffman said.
“If they can take this now, they can take AP Chemistry in the fall,” he said. “What we find in AP Chemistry is they outperform the juniors because they’ve had this bump.”
The three non-Thomas Jefferson students this year are from Robinson and Hayfield secondary schools, and an out-of-state student from Minnesota.
“There’s a lot of technology here at Thomas Jefferson that we don’t have at Hayfield and a lot of expertise,” said Hayfield student Chelsea Payne, 17, a rising senior.
This summer, she is experimenting on algae to gauge the effects of changing salt levels in water. Other students are experimenting with cancer cells and animal embryos.
Although there might be more fun things to do during the summer, rising sophomore Andrea Li, 15, said she made the right decision in attending summer school.
“A lot of my friends are doing rowing camps this summer,” said Andrea, who is taking chemistry. “I’m actually glad I’m here. I really like chemistry, and I’m getting ahead. I’m working hard. It’s not really the TJ culture [that brings so many to summer school]. It’s more the people who are chosen to go to TJ. They all wanted to get ahead.”