News & Politics

Success Factory: Read an Excerpt from Our Story on Thomas Jefferson

This is an excerpt from our October cover story on Thomas Jefferson High School. For the full story, pick up an issue of The Washingtonian, on stands now. 

At a time when high schools are often big, alienating places, Jefferson has a rare esprit de corps. That’s no accident. With kids coming from dozens of middle schools scattered across the region, the original staff saw the challenge of creating community. Their solution: Throw out the regimentation of conventional high schools. Gone were bells and hall passes. Students ate lunch at the same time and anywhere they wanted—in classrooms, lounging in the hall, or outside.

Early on, the faculty rejected a traditional high-school schedule for freshmen. Incoming students take an integrated program of biology, English, and technology in groups of 60 or 70. The groups function as schools within a school; they spend nearly half the day together and are taught by teachers who work as teams. The coursework is fun—building robots, for example—and camaraderie, class unity, and friendships blossom.

Another Jefferson innovation is “eighth period.” Worried that kids commuting long distances might have to skip afterschool clubs and extracurricular activities, the staff scheduled those activities instead in twice-weekly 90-minute periods. Some kids use the time to study or catch up on lab work, but it’s also a time when Jefferson’s diversity of talent goes on display.

More than 150 clubs and groups meet during eighth period. Typical extracurriculars—newspaper, class government, Latin Honor Society, math teams, and the like—are packed. A few groups, such as the Stonecutters, which airs reruns of The Simpsons, dabble in pop culture.

Many Jefferson students use the time to pursue a passion. A handful of kids designed an alternative-energy system for the school, then raised the money to add solar panels to the roof. Two students who help manage the school’s computer systems won a $380,000 grant from Sun Microsystems for new equipment.

Jefferson kids talk of an entrepreneurial spirit at the school. If you float an idea or want to start something, they say, no one shoots you down.

Senior Jeremy Chaikind used eighth period last year to make a feature-length film. Jefferson, he recognized, had excellent writers and a great drama department. With a friend, he started the Cliffhanger Media Project, though he pitched it to others in a less-than-hopeful way: “This is what I want to do. I don’t know if we can do it. It’s never been done before.” By the end of the year, more than 20 people were working on the film.

“People saw my dream and said, ‘That’s wonderful—let’s do it,’ Jeremy says. “I think that’s a statement about TJ.”