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Success Factory: Inside America’s Best High School
Comments () | Published September 21, 2009

Meet Brian Murphy. He’s days away from graduating from Thomas Jefferson High School, better known as America’s Best High School, where smart kids from all over Northern Virginia plot to take over the world, or at least get into Princeton.

Jefferson is a science-and-technology magnet school with an admissions process more daunting than those that guard the gates of the nation’s top colleges. By reputation, it’s a school of geeks and computer gamers. Brian, however, arrived at Jefferson caring more about history and writing than science. Tall, broad-shouldered, and blond, he’s cocaptain of the soccer team and walks with a loose-limbed confidence. Though voted biggest flirt by classmates, he’s mature, well spoken, and genuinely nice.

If Brian defies the Jefferson stereotype, that’s because the school is nothing like it’s supposed to be. Yes, whiz-kid scientists, computer jocks, and chess champions roam the halls along with more National Merit Semifinalists than probably at any other school in the country. But there’s also a professional model who juggles New York gigs with dissecting leeches in neuroscience lab. A recent grad was a world champion in the martial arts. A junior is president of Virginia’s Latin society and a college-baseball prospect.

Because it culls top talent from all over, Jefferson is often likened to the star-studded New York Yankees—and hated with the same passion. But the Yankees win only in baseball; Jefferson wins at everything. In the school’s orchestra and band, 22 students made All-State in 2008—nearly twice as many as at any other Fairfax school. Classmates of Brian’s won a national bridge championship against middle-age players. The school is even emerging as a sports power, having earned eight state titles since 2000, more than every county rival except Lake Braddock and Robinson.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology was created in 1985 as a learning laboratory to seed the workforce for Northern Virginia’s growing technology industry. No one expected it to win soccer games.

Today, the fact that Jefferson is great at everything is a source of pride but also of concern. Among the faculty, there’s a fear that the school is becoming a success factory—a place where overachievers are too busy racking up trophies and college credentials to test themselves in the lab or classroom. The nation’s number-one school is asking itself: How much success is too much?

Brian Murphy arrives in the Jefferson main office on a late spring day. He’s chewing bubble gum and wearing a sweatshirt and faded jeans with a key lanyard dangling from the pocket—a portrait of cool.

Brian is cochair of the Jefferson Society, a student-run group that handles tours of the school. Last year, Brian and his cohort introduced nearly 3,000 visitors to Jefferson, among them dignitaries and educators from the Netherlands, Korea, Japan, Singapore, and China.

U.S. News awarded Jefferson the top spot in its “America’s Best High Schools” issue in 2007 and again in 2008. (The 2009 issue is due out soon.) But the school doesn’t make a great first impression. Its Annandale neighborhood is classic suburban sprawl. The school building, which dates to 1964, is sheathed partly in white metal, a once-contemporary look that now is just ugly.

Outsiders assume that Jefferson is lavishly funded, but it gets the same per-student allocation from the county as the other high schools, plus a seven-percent boost from the state. A foundation tied to Jefferson is trying to raise $750,000 to resupply the school’s labs, some of which are stocked with 15-year-old equipment.

Brian sets off with today’s visitor to see the labs, home to the senior-year research that is a Jefferson trademark. When the school opened in 1985, the country was still reeling from a landmark report warning of “a rising tide of mediocrity” in education. Created with help from local business leaders, Jefferson was to be a beacon of excellence. Staff saw the school as a learning laboratory, a chance to break from prescribed curricula and textbooks. Students would team with researchers throughout the area and work on real-world problems.

“Those were great days,” says Geoff Jones, the school’s first principal. “We could not just become another gifted-and-talented center and simply offer the very best AP curriculum in Northern Virginia. We had to do more.”

Yearlong lab research for seniors was part of that early vision. Today there are 13 labs, for everything from robotics to neuroscience.

In the chemical-analysis lab, senior Sumit Malik is hunched over a laptop working on a PowerPoint presentation. Sumit spent the previous summer at DC’s Naval Research Lab, where he coauthored a paper with his mentor. For his senior project, a derivative of that work, he built a microbial fuel cell that captures the energy of a plant’s photosynthesis and produces clean, naturally replenishing energy.

Sumit, now at Harvard, was one of 15 Jefferson semifinalists in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search. More than 1,600 high-schoolers nationwide entered research in the competition. Jefferson had the most semifinalists of any school in the country; two, Alex Kim and Narendra Tallapragada, finished in the top ten.

In the prototyping lab is the chassis for a biofuel car under construction. In the oceanography lab, students are wrapping up a study of underwater-mining effects on the hearing of sea horses. A biotech student tests the effects of a Chinese licorice root on cancer cells in a rat.

At every stop of Brian’s tour, it’s the same. The teacher is a bystander as students work on their own or in groups. When the kids talk about their research, they look you in the eye. There’s no mumbling.

To get into Jefferson, students pass through an Ivy League-like vetting. Of the roughly 3,000 eighth-graders who apply each year, 480 are admitted. That’s a 16-percent acceptance rate, which means Jefferson is as tough to get into as Georgetown, Cornell, and Williams.

Other public magnet schools, such as Stuyvesant in New York City, have similarly rigorous admissions. But Jefferson draws from the extraordinary pool of talent in Washington, a region with the nation’s densest collection of PhDs.

“What makes Jefferson the number-one high school in the nation is almost settled right out of admissions,” says former principal Jones, now head of the private Potomac School in McLean. Only the most elite colleges draw applicants with this type of intellectual firepower, he says. “And they are selecting for a broader range of things. They have to pay attention to putting out football teams; they’ve got legacies to worry about. They don’t have that luxury of building a freshman class almost entirely on intellect.”

Jefferson has its share of geniuses. Alex Kim began thinking about the research that made him an Intel winner when he was 13. Reading a book about crayfish that caught his eye one day in the library, he was intrigued by a footnote: No crayfish had ever been discovered in Africa.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 09/21/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles