The Number 1 High School in America Offers a Real Head Start

Students of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology participate in a 24-hour Hackathon Vicky Somma

The No. 1–ranked high school in the country looks like a construction zone, sounds a bit like a college campus when you hear talk of the curriculum and smells a lot like sawdust. Welcome to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a state-chartered mecca for burgeoning science geeks in Alexandria, Virginia. It's mid-August, and the woodsy campus is overrun with dozens of workmen, a handful of administrators and maybe two or three students. When the work is finally completed at the end of 2016, students will return to 14 fully equipped research labs as part of the campus facilities. "Our front entrance is gonna look just like Monticello," Principal Evan Glazer boasts. Assistant Principal Tinell Priddy adds, "I can say that when this is done, there will be no high school the likes of [Thomas Jefferson] in the country."

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That might already be the case. Data commissioned by Newsweek, based both on student achievement and college readiness indicators, placed Thomas Jefferson as the highest-performing high school in the United States. Nor is that the first such declaration; administrative offices in the school are adorned with several U.S. News and World Report covers crowning Thomas Jefferson at the top of "America's Best High Schools." Can TJ, as students affectionately call it, match that sort of hype?

With its focus on student-driven research, specialized college-level coursework in subjects like computer science and bio-nanotechnology, and high proportion of faculty holding Ph.D.s, Thomas Jefferson hardly resembles a conventional high school. "We're a lot like a college in a lot of ways, because we have a really active alumni base that's willing to help us, that communicates with us," says Anant Das, a rising senior spending part of the summer on campus to prepare for a stint as student council president. "They love to come back and be with us. I don't think you get that at other high schools."

Das is planning to begin work in an energy systems research lab in the fall. Roughly half of Thomas Jefferson students are involved in individualized research in any given year, Glazer says, but all seniors are expected to complete a major research project before graduation. There are labs dealing with neuroscience, astronomy, oceanography and other subjects; eventually, the results are presented at symposiums and science fairs. We tour the building-in-progress, and the principal walks over to research plaques encased in glass, excitedly pointing out a satellite a group of students launched into space with help from NASA.

"We're preparing kids to go into fields that have yet to be invented," says Glazer, who's entering his ninth year at the school. "We're really focusing more on skills and an appreciation for STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics]. But if they decide to become journalists, we convey that they have a unique knowledge base in STEM. They would be able to contribute to articles on energy, the environment, and government policy on those important issues."

The school—or, at least, the building it inhabits—was built in 1964 as Thomas Jefferson High School, a non-selective and non-specializing school that would go on to produce such notable alumni as Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl and erstwhile Buffalo Bills kicker Scott Norwood. (His was the missed field goal attempt that famously ended Super Bowl XXV.) In 1985, the school reopened as Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, shifting toward its current, strictly application-based admissions model and reputation for excellence. In 1988, it became a founding school in the National Consortium for Specialized Secondary Schools of Mathematics, Science and Technology.

By then, each class entering the school was required to undergo an extensive admissions process. That process today consists of academic eligibility requirements, an admissions test, two teacher recommendations and an essay. "It's a holistic process that evaluates their interests," Glazer says. "There isn't a process that takes the highest 480 [test] scores and says, 'Let's just go with them.'" According to the principal, the school accepts about one out of every six applicants—a rate that's in line with some of the country's most selective private colleges.

Where Thomas Jefferson doesn't quite compete with selective colleges is in its socioeconomic diversity figures. Despite its public magnet status, the school population reflects the solidly upper-middle class northern Virginia suburbs; according to a recent survey, just 2 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch programs. Glazer emphasizes that the school itself has no hand in its own admissions process, which is handled by the division office for the school district ("It's kind of a black box—I never see who applies"). Scott Campbell, a history teacher–turned–assistant principal, served on a committee focusing on how teachers could promote diversity at the school. "We're aware there's a need," he says, and despite a sense of faculty powerlessness over admissions decisions, the strategy has been to reach out to underserved communities, promote a love of STEM, and encourage middle school students to apply.

Campbell taught at four other schools around the country before arriving in Alexandria. He says Thomas Jefferson students are different. "You will see some of the strangest things if you walk through the hallway during lunchtime," he tells Newsweek. Once, he stumbled on a homespun reenactment of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar taking place on the grass. "At other schools, that could lead to bullying or just people making judgments. Our kids are just OK with it."

Ria Galanos, a faculty member who claims to be the nation's only high school computer science teacher/cheerleading coach hybrid, concurs. "They want to know the 'Why?' behind everything," she says of her students. Several years ago, computer science students held the first ever "Hack TJ," a programming competition in which 250 students built web and mobile apps. The next year, it was held at Microsoft's offices in Washington, D.C., and the number of participants doubled.

"I'm just impressed that the kids ran a hackathon by themselves," Galanos says. "They take charge of their learning. They want more, and they ask for it, and we give it to them." She thinks for a minute, looking for words. "It's a school that allows us to try different things. A public school allows us to try new things! That's huge."

Correction: This article initially stated that the high school's renovations will be completed in 2017 rather than late 2016.