Shooting for the Academic Stars

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

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Students salivate for these opportunities, even though they often find the workload taxing. "The stress on a TJ kid is almost too much," says senior Ariel Lepon. "I'm really happy I'm here. This is the best place for me to be. But I wonder if I'd gone somewhere else, would I be this stressed out?" Another student responded that the pressure helps improve time management skills. "You fail or you figure it out," shrugs senior Marina Arnold. "And by fail, we mean B+," adds Lepon.

After they've graduated, many TJ alums keep up a network, and even if they lose touch, they say they know where to find one another. "Lots of TJ kids are running around elite academic institutions and also major new economy centers like Silicon Valley, New York, Washington, and Boston," says alum Andrew Winerman, class of 2000. He explains that TJ connections are like college connections, only perhaps deeper, because high school is even more formative and emotionally weighty than college for a lot of people.

Work harder. TJ does seem to work well for students and alums, but does it work well for the larger community? Some school districts are chagrined to lose their top talent to TJ, not to mention the roughly $8,000 per student in tax money for public schools. What about the economically disadvantaged? Admissions tests at TJ are based solely on academic merit, while minority enrollment remains at under 5 percent, with blacks and Hispanics conspicuously underrepresented.

Whatever the criticisms of TJ's admissions process, one thing is true: Once they get in, these kids work hard. And there's no better example of this than in their athletic programs. Unlike some private high schools that recruit athletic as well as academic talent, TJ can't rely on stars. The students find ways to win nevertheless. TJ particularly excels in endurance sports like cross country, crew, and swimming.

"We sweep everything," says senior Alexis Brown, who rows for the girls' crew team. "Some people think we must be cheating. But what they don't get is that we just work harder. We're passionate, and we work harder."


Corrected on : Updated on: 12/5/08