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Arlington Kids Among Magnet School’s Newest Class, But Future Remains Uncertain

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (courtesy of Sean Nguyen)

Months after parents and students wondered if rising freshmen in Arlington could attend Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the results are in.

The Class of 2025 will include Arlington kids, although the exact number is not known.

The results, released Wednesday, cap a turbulent admissions cycle. Fairfax County Public Schools made significant changes to the school admissions criteria — among them scrapping a standardized test and written teacher recommendation — which parents protested and challenged with two lawsuits.

The changes resulted in the school’s “most diverse class in recent history.”

Thomas Jefferson, nicknamed “TJ,” is a STEM-focused magnet school open to students from Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties who meet certain academic requirements to get in. US News ranks it as the number one public high school in the United States.

While Arlington annually sends students to the school, the relationship is not a steady one. When facing a budget deficit, Arlington Public Schools sometimes suggests cutting funding. That happened earlier this year, when Superintendent Francisco Durán’s proposed budget for the 2021-22 school year, which had a $42 million gap, put TJ funding on the chopping block.

In response, some Arlington parents and students mobilized to advocate for funding tuition. Then-sophomore Lauren Fisher was among four parents and students to speak at a School Board hearing on March 23.

“If I were to sum up TJ in a few words, it would be an animated community of nerds,” Fisher said. “The students there are incredibly enthusiastic and encouraging, and this energy is contagious. I’ve never felt more encouraged to try or learn new things regardless of how nerdy they might be.”

When the School Board released its amended budget in early April, TJ was no longer among the next school year’s cuts, though the reason for the reversal was not clear.

Still, Arlington students’ access to the magnet school could end in a future budget cycle. Director of Secondary Education Tyrone Byrd tells ARLnow that in difficult budget situations, funding for the magnet school would be among the first of proposed cuts.

“Our commitment is to APS kids and APS buildings, that’s our first priority,” Byrd said. “As far as I know, there’s no purposeful movement toward removing TJ from our options to kids, but when it gets tight, we have to start looking for avenues to correct that.”

Former TJ parent Jennifer Atkin, who remains involved in the Arlington-TJ community, recalled a similar effort two years ago when then-Superintendent Patrick Murphy suggested cutting transportation funding.

“I believe one of the values that Arlington and the School Board profess is equity and access, and I think there’s a feeling amongst parents that in order for them to make good on that they really need to continue the relationship that they have with TJ,” Atkin said. “If you cut off access to this public education opportunity, what you’re really doing is cutting off access to [specialized] programs to the people who are middle and lower-income within Arlington, which runs counter to this idea that you’re promoting equity and access.”

Atkin suggests that the magnet school remains a target for budget cuts because the Arlington-TJ community is relatively small, and tuition cuts would anger fewer people than cuts to other programs. Byrd disputes that theory, saying that the county considers these cuts because the APS prioritizes its own resources first and foremost.

Should access to her school be in danger next year, senior Alexandra Fall said she is prepared to pick up where she left off in April, writing to board members and motivating peers to take action.

“I would try to get people involved,” Fall said. “I know that the community of Arlington kids at TJ is very strong because they ride the buses together and they’ve all come from a similar place.”

Fall and Atkin said they doubt the struggle to keep Arlington students at TJ will ever reach a resolution.

The problem is with every election cycle, the composition of the school board changes,” Atkin said. “Even if this school board were to say, ‘We’re going to stop proposing cuts to TJ,’ it doesn’t mean that the next school board will operate the same way. That’s the nature of politics.”

Photo courtesy of Sean Nguyen

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