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Shooting for the Academic Stars

By picking top students and feeding their passions, a Virginia school lands on top.

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When the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into space, Americans were awestruck. Few would have guessed that now, just 50 years later, backpack-toting 16-year-olds would be taking their own space shots in high school science class. But in Fairfax County, Va., at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, "TJ" for short, that's exactly what's happening. Working in conjunction with Orbital Sciences Corp., a nearby tech company, students in Adam Kemp's Energy Systems class are designing their own state-of-the-art satellite, complete with a Web interface and voice digitizer that would allow science students at schools around the country to enter strings of text for broadcast.

"We want students getting their feet wet and muddy doing fun things with science in a vigorous way," says Principal Evan Glazer.

Building satellites is certainly a hands-on approach. But TJ is not, admittedly, your typical high school. Established in 1985 during Northern Virginia's population boom, TJ was designed with the area's emerging tech and science industries in mind. Tech corporations poured millions into the project. TJ, for its part, took the support and ran with it. Today, for the second year in a row, it tops our list of America's Best High Schools.

[Photo Gallery: Thomas Jefferson High]

The building itself is remarkably unimpressive. With its chipped paint and trailers that serve as classrooms, it looks very much like many other public schools. That is, until you meet the students.

TJ draws applicants from across five counties and two cities in Northern Virginia, selecting 500 students from a pool of several thousand applicants. Admission is based primarily on a general achievement test and prior grades. To give a sense of student caliber: Of the 432 seniors in the Class of 2007, 158 were National Merit semifinalists, more than any other school in the nation. And the average student SAT score was a 2155 (on a 2400 scale). When they aren't shouldering their science-heavy course load, TJ students participate in a slew of extracurriculars, choosing from some 25 varsity sports and 85 clubs, including the Investment Club, the Neuroscience Society, the Entomology Club, and the Forensics Sciences Society.

People power. So the kids are smart, but what makes it a great school? The students come from the D.C. suburbs—an area with more Ph.D.'s per capita than practically anywhere else in the nation—thus many of them hail from highly educated, affluent families. And from this population, TJ collects the teen braniacs. So the important question becomes: How much educational value is added at TJ?

Well, high-powered peers are one asset. "They feed off each other and create a kind of synergy for thinking," says Glazer. Beyond that are specialized course offerings such as Artificial Intelligence, DNA Science II, and Advanced Optics with Research Applications. Matt Pearce, the mentorship coordinator, works with the school's science lab directors—whose expertise ranges from oceanography to microelectronics—to forge connections between students and some two dozen corporate, government, and university laboratories. These partner organizations—which include the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Naval Research Center, and the U.S. Naval Observatory among others—donate laboratory facilities, research space, and sometimes tutoring expertise. TJ even has a full-time fundraising director. One of the school's distinguishing features is the Senior Tech Lab, a capstone project in which students focus on a scientific area of interest, and their research culminates in a paper and presentation. Projects run the gamut, from building underwater robots to the chemistry of art preservation.

But if the sciences at TJ are strong, it's not at the expense of the humanities. "People look at our school's name on the front of the building and they focus on the 'Science and Technology' part, but they forget about the 'Thomas Jefferson' part," said Cathy Colglazier, humanities division manager. "Well, Thomas Jefferson was a Renaissance man: The way you live life fully is to study broadly!" And students do. The class listing reads like a college course catalog, with offerings in Latin, AP European history, globalization, and economics.

Updated on: 12/5/08