Since then, Alex has been fascinated by how species evolve and migrate across the planet. At Jefferson, he’s focused on the lobster-size giant river prawn and has won grants to collect samples in Puerto Rico and Texas. When he talks about his work, he leans across the table, his excitement building through a 20-minute dissertation.
But a stratospheric IQ isn’t the defining characteristic of a Jefferson student. The kids are quick to note that to get in, they had to do well on a standardized test created specifically for the school. We’re smart, they say, but more important, we’re good test takers.
And they’re driven. Dinner by the laptop is routine. At parties they talk about homework and all-nighters spent studying for tests. A few cast aside Facebook, a life force to many teens, as a time waster.
For teachers, such students are a blessing and a curse. There are almost no classroom-management issues; kids aim to please, do their work, and turn it in on time. Indeed, teachers say they have to work hard just to keep up with the class.
At the same time, the kids are obsessed with grades and work the angles for every point they can get. “They are professional students,” says Emmet Rosenfeld, a former English teacher at Jefferson. “They know how to game anything, and they know how to get A’s.”
But Jefferson kids play as hard as they work—hence the trophies that pile up at the school every year. It’s no coincidence that all but one of the school’s state championships have come in cross-country, track, and swimming—sports where talent is often secondary to effort.
“You have to be smart to get in,” Brian says. “But it’s a combination of being smart and being driven. I realized toward the end of my sophomore year that it’s not a school for smart kids; it’s a school for motivated kids.”
Chris Kilgore is perhaps the Jefferson archetype. As a middle-schooler at the private Flint Hill School in Fairfax, he took math courses geared for high-schoolers. At Jefferson his freshman year, he joined the Latin Honor Society and a Shakespeare troupe, played football and baseball, and trained with the crew team.
As a junior last year, Chris took four Advanced Placement classes—in chemistry, American history, Latin, and statistics. He added a college-level math class each semester—multivariable calculus in the fall, linear algebra in the spring. Rounding out his seven-period schedule were English and physics.
That wasn’t enough. Watching TV coverage of the recent economic recession, Chris decided he wanted to educate himself about how the economy works. So he enrolled in two online AP courses—one for macroeconomics and one for microeconomics.
All of this coursework led to a hellish two weeks when the spring AP exams rolled around. Chris took the tests for his four Jefferson AP classes and one each for his online economics courses. Because Jefferson’s non-AP physics course is rigorous, he did a little extra studying and also took the AP physics exam.
“I figured I might as well,” he says.
Chris slept little during his seven-exam marathon. But aside from circles under the eyes, he seemed invigorated by the experience. He scored a five on each of the exams—the top mark.
Entering senior year, Chris has yet to sacrifice much for his academic pursuits. He’s a pitcher on the varsity baseball team and works out three times a week in the off-season with private trainers. He’s a fan of The Office and iTunes. “He’s even managed to squeeze in time for a girlfriend,” says his mother, Carrie Kilgore.
An officer in Jefferson’s Latin Honor Society, Chris campaigned last year to become head of the Virginia Junior Classical League. At the group’s annual conference, a Jefferson contingent worked the crowd and helped him win. Even amid the campaign hubbub and his academic marathon, he continued to meet once a week with a retired Latin teacher. They translate Latin texts together—not because he needs help but because he enjoys it. “My friends make fun of me about this,” Chris says, “but I really love it. It’s very relaxing.”
Chris and his family live not far from Wolf Trap on a winding street of nice homes built in the mid-1990s. Each year, roughly 400 Jefferson freshmen come from Fairfax; the rest live in Arlington, Falls Church, Loudoun, Prince William, and Fauquier. It takes some students well over an hour to commute.
About nine out of ten students arrive at Jefferson from public middle schools. Families who can’t afford the $30,000 price tag of a Potomac School or Sidwell Friends see Jefferson as a private-school equivalent. Money remains an issue for some after graduation: The school gets lots of kids into the Ivies and top private schools, but more than 40 percent go to the University of Virginia or other state schools in the Commonwealth, in part because of their lower costs.
The Jefferson demographics that get the most attention revolve around race and ethnicity. The percentage of students of Asian descent at the school has grown steadily. This fall, Asian-Americans make up 54 percent of freshmen, the first time they’ve represented a majority of the incoming class. Whites account for 36 percent.
These figures are similar to what other science magnets report. Because high-level education in many Asian countries is reserved for elites, immigrants to the United States often place great importance on schooling—a value their kids internalize.
“The typical stereotype is that the Asian students have no life and hate their mothers,” says Vern Williams, a math teacher at Falls Church’s Longfellow Middle School, a feeder for Jefferson. “That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Jeanette Du, daughter of Chinese immigrants, is a senior at Jefferson. She’s a top violinist, having made All-State orchestra each of her first three years. She also competes regionally in figure skating. Living with her grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s disease, sparked her interest in medicine and neuroscience.
Jeanette’s parents, James and Jenny, moved from Shanghai to the Washington area in the late 1980s. They nudged Jeanette as a middle-schooler to think about Jefferson, but it wasn’t a hard sell: Most of her friends were applying.
Her father occasionally pushed her to do well. “In grade school, he’d say, ‘You can’t go to that party until you learn your multiplication tables,’ ” Jeanette says. “But later on, I began to push myself. I wanted to get those good grades.”