Public high schools in America don’t have great reputations. But that’s not the case in northern Virginia, where some of America’s best public high schools—and high-school students—can be found. What’s their secret?
On a beautiful Sunday afternoon in mid-September, with the first hint of autumn coolness in the air, hundreds of students and parents formed a line outside Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, and then filed slowly into the relatively new brick building. With 1,709 students in grades nine through 12, Stone Bridge is one of several large, suburban public schools that have popped up in the upper-income neighborhoods of fast-growing Loudoun County over the last decade or so. The school was built in 2000 to relieve overcrowding at nearby Broad Run High School.
This was College Fair day at Stone Bridge—a big deal at most high schools, but especially weighted with significance in northern Virginia. Stone Bridge, like most of its counterparts in the region, sends more than 90 percent of its graduates to a four-year university or college of some kind. Once the crowd had moved inside, there was a mad scramble by both parents and students—juniors mostly, but a decent mix of sophomores and procrastinating seniors as well—to meet some of the college and university representatives (recruiters, really) seated at long tables behind their school banners. Some 75 colleges and universities were represented at Stone Bridge—the majority of them Virginia schools, but Stanford, Notre Dame and a few other notable, out-of-state representatives were also on hand to promote their schools and to discuss the admissions process.
Unsurprisingly, the most popular person at the event was the University of Virginia rep, a young man dressed in khaki pants and blue blazer. The Stone Bridge high schoolers peppered him with questions. “How many APs?” one student asked. AP is shorthand for advance placement classes, which are more demanding than regular high school classes and considered essential nowadays for students who want to get into top colleges. The UVA rep responded quickly: “As many as possible.” One could see the brows of more than a few students furrow at the comment—it was simply more confirmation that getting into a top university has become a Darwinian process.
Most places in America take education seriously. But few take it more seriously than northern Virginia, where a large number of affluent, high-achieving parents live and pass their ambitions on to their children. What’s unique about the region is that most of the best students attend public, rather than private, high schools.
Caitlin Noselli, a senior at Stone Bridge who attended the college fair, is one example: In addition to the impressive collection of courses that she’s taking—AP literature and composition, AP government, AP Spanish 5, physics, pre-calculus, advanced marketing—she is extremely active outside of the classroom. Noselli is a varsity cheerleader, president of Delta Epsilon Chi, a community-minded business student organization, and a member of the advisory board of the local Future Business Leaders of America; she also has a part-time job at Lansdowne Potomac Club. Busy is the word. She’s taken the Standard Aptitude Test, or SAT, three times. “It’s difficult, trying to comply with the many demands of high school, the crush of deadlines and the increasing amount of work, but I try to set priorities,” says Noselli. “Make sure the most important things get finished first.”
There are 35 public high schools in Fairfax, Loudoun and Arlington counties, many of them opened in recent years as a result of phenomenal population growth. And, thanks to many students like Noselli, several of them are not just excellent schools in Virginia, but among the best public high schools in America. In 2007, for example, eight of Fairfax’s high schools were ranked among Newsweek’s list of the top 100 high schools. According to Virginia Department of Education data from 2005, northern Virginia’s public high school graduation rate was 84 percent—the highest, by a comfortable margin, of any region in the state and one of the best in the nation. (Virginia’s state average graduation rate in 2005, the last year for which stats are available, was 77 percent.) Loudoun County has a 92 percent graduation rate; Fauquier County isn’t far behind. What’s more, annually, more high school seniors in northern Virginia indicate their intention to attend a four-year college than from any other Virginia region—nearly 60 percent. Only one other region comes close to that number—Hampton Roads, with 52 percent, and it is a distant second.
The Virginia Department of Education does not like to get into regional student performance comparisons, but Charles Pyle, the department’s director of communications, acknowledges, in something of an understatement “We do have high-performing schools in the northern part of the state.”
One of them, Thomas Jefferson School of Science and Technology, is in a class of its own. T.J., with 1,807 students, is a magnet school that eighth-graders must test into. Annually, only one in five applicants is accepted. In November 2007, U.S. News & World Report ranked T.J. as the best high school in America. Prep Review, a website that ranks schools by SAT scores and Ivy League acceptance, has given it the same number 1 ranking, and no wonder: T.J. has the highest average SAT score in the United States, at 1,478 out of 1,600 (the site’s rankings do not take into account the recently added writing component, which adds another 800 points). The school, northern Virginia’s Governor’s school for math and science, seems more like a college than a high school, with course offerings including neurobiology, quantum mechanics and DNA sequencing. (What happened to standing around in uncomfortable shorts at Phys. Ed.?)
Simon Ho, a junior at Thomas Jefferson, is in many ways an exemplar of the stellar northern Virginia student. This year he is taking neurobiology, BC calculus, AP Physics, English, AP U.S. History and Artificial Intelligence—which one would almost need to get through a course load like that. In his spare time, Ho says, “I do Chinese martial arts seven days a week.” All that and he says he’s never up past midnight. Last autumn, Ho went to Huntington Learning Center twice a week prior to taking his PSAT test. He later scored a 2,200 out of a possible 2,400 on his SAT.
Ho hasn’t decided where he wants to go to college. “I mean, wherever life takes me,” he says, sounding more like a surfer than a science geek. “I like the loose feel that some of them have, such as Princeton or Yale.” He’s interested in Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture—and thinking about going to an Ivy League school. Ho says that having time-management skills is a key to managing a busy life like his, adding: “That’s something a lot of high-schoolers haven’t mastered.”
Experts say there are many reasons why some kids excel in school. Genetics is one reason, of course, and studies also show that students from upper-income families tend to do better in school than children from less prosperous neighborhoods. Few U.S. regions have more money than northern Virginia. In 2006, U.S. News & World Report labeled Arlington County the wealthiest in the nation—and certainly, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William aren’t far behind. In 2006, the median income in Fairfax County was $67,642, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, compared to the national median of $48,201.
But educational achievement is also a function of the environment in which students live and are raised. Parents who are well educated, or at the least place a high value on education, tend to cultivate kids who are achievement-oriented themselves. In that sense, northern Virginia is distinctive. According to U.S. Census reports, nine percent of U.S. adults hold advanced educational degrees. In Virginia, the number is 11.6 percent. In northern Virginia, the number is 22 percent. In Falls Church, 34 percent of adults have an advanced degree—the second-largest city percentage in the nation. These people work in Washington and throughout the region in government and the information technology sector, as professionals and entrepreneurs. Both of Ho’s parents are software engineers. “The large number of federal workers and federal contractors provide a stable, well-educated community, and a relatively stable tax base for the region,” says Loudoun school board member Thomas Reed. “The influx of high-tech firms has added to the area’s affluence.”
Northern Virginia’s booming population, many schools and affluent neighborhoods all translate into big school budgets. The 2007 education budget for Fairfax County’s 174 schools (elementary and secondary) was $2.6 billion. Loudoun County’s was $879 million for 72 schools (with 10,000 employees). About 73 percent of Loudoun’s General Fund revenue goes to education; in Fairfax, it’s 52 percent. By contrast, Richmond will spend only 25 percent of its general revenues on education in years 2008 and 2009, according to the city.
Importantly, bigger budgets typically mean there is more money for hiring good teachers, who burnish a school’s reputation and attract superior students. It’s a virtuous cycle missing in most urban areas. “Excellence attracts excellent,” says Virginia education department’s Pyle. “When you have a school division with a national ranking and the ability to far exceed the average pay grade, you attract highly qualified teachers. We still have a teacher shortage, so the competition for teachers is very intense. The school districts that can offer attractive financial packages have a competitive edge.” Last year, Arlington had the highest average public school teacher salary in the state—just under $65,000, according to the Virginia Department of Education. Fairfax and Loudoun counties were not far behind, at roughly $60,500.
What’s driving the region’s educational ambitions and achievements? For one thing, parents. Raymond Pasi, the principal of Arlington’s Yorktown High School, considered one of the best schools in the area, sees parents’ values inculcated in their children. “I think our parents are very interested in their children’s education,” he says. “They want to see their children reach beyond their potential. Back to School night is the best-attended event of the entire school year. I attribute parent interest and parent support to our success.”
T.J. principal Evan Glazer points to northern Virginia’s success culture, if you will, as a catalyst for academic achievement by teenagers. “I think parents model a lot of behaviors to their kids, and when parents move to Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia, I think it is just a whole environment of people who are incredibly driven to try and be innovative, think differently, think creatively, and are focused on being successful in their work lives.”
Before joining Thomas Jefferson, Glazer worked in Roanoke. He says there are “definite distinctions” between the two in-state population groups. “The kids [here] are focused on being successful—they make a commitment to be successful,” he says. “They still are children and make mistakes, like to have fun, and do adolescent activities, which [is] true across the whole state. But our kids are driven to do well. We’re not making many phone calls to parents about their child’s inability to turn in their work on time. They have a commitment.”
Alyssa Samuel, a junior at Loudoun County High School, hopes to one day become a pediatrician. To accomplish this goal, she maintains a 4.0 grade point average (GPA) while holding down a full course load of AP and honors classes, on top of volunteering at Inova Hospital almost four hours a week, which she began doing when she was 13. “I participate in cross country, Keyettes club, class council, youth advisory council and my church youth choir,” she says. “I participated in the National Leadership on Medicine Forum this past summer. I balance my schedule by utilizing an electronic organizer to set up homework, quizzes, classes, test schedules and other extracurricular activities.” She recently won an award for her volunteer efforts.
Alyssa’s parents have had her success in mind for a long time. Weaver Samuel, her father, says, “We researched the quality of schools before deciding to buy property in Loudoun. We began thinking about college and post-secondary education before the births of our [two] children and planned them four years apart to allow for completion of one child’s college education as the other child’s began.” He attributes his daughter’s success partly to various summer enrichment programs she has taken (in writing, arts and science, leadership, medical) at various colleges. And, he adds, parental involvement is always paramount. “We have the Loudoun County Alliance for Parents, which brings together parents from schools throughout the county each month for educational updates as well as networking. The parental involvement in the schools through volunteerism and financial contributions has been tremendous.”
In the past 25 years, the amazing demographic shift in northern Virginia has not only had drastic effects on land development and traffic, but it has also revolutionized education. What was once a rural area has exploded in population: Loudoun County has grown by over 100,000 people since 2000, and Fairfax by nearly 50,000. This explosion in population has led to upscale planned communities, where the children of soccer moms, that stereotypical suburban subculture targeted by political strategists and advertisers a decade ago, are growing up.
For them, over-scheduling and multi-tasking—playing in the school band, editing the school newspaper, volunteering, playing varsity sports—are the norm. On top of focusing on their GPA and SAT, many students also worry about extracurricular activities, knowing colleges also put a lot of emphasis on these when looking at applicants. Many spend hours in cram schools, such as Huntington Learning Center and Sylvan, which have programs geared toward improving academic performance as well as preparation for the all-important SAT. More than half of each company’s Virginia centers are located in northern Virginia.
Judy Betz, a junior at Broad Run High School in Ashburn, has already taken the SAT once, along with the Kaplan SAT prep. She’s got a 3.8 GPA, and this year is taking AP biology, AP psychology, honors English, Spanish and pre-calculus—a pretty rigorous load, especially given that Betz is a serious softball player. She plays year-round, on a travel team and on her high school varsity—and aims to play in college. She’s prepping for her second go at the SAT and says she’s been on nine official college visits since last spring break. When time allows, she does volunteer work in her community—tutoring and working for a group that creates books for mentally challenged people.
All this striving can have a downside. “I think students feel significant stress,” says Lynette McCracken, a guidance counselor at Yorktown High School in Arlington. “A lot of the press says, ‘Oh, parents are pushing.’ But among students, there’s this real fear of not getting in [a good school]. They think, ‘I have to keep [performing] or I won’t get into college.”
In Northern Virginia schools, part of the performance calculus is AP classes—it’s a big reason why the region’s schools are so highly ranked nationally. AP classes, designed by the College Board to resemble a first-year course at a four-year university, were first introduced in 1955. Over the last decade, they’ve proliferated. The classes can propel students into good universities, and they buff the reputations of high schools themselves. It is not unusual for students to take more than three AP classes in one year; many say they take between two to four. Still, schools like Yorktown use AP courses to encourage and enable their students to attend and succeed in college. Last year, nearly half of the student body, including freshmen and sophomores, took an AP test. “We try to encourage all of our students to consider taking an AP class before they graduate,” explains Pasi.
APs are considered a reliable predictor of a student’s success in college, but some experts complain that the number of students taking AP classes has risen at the expense of quality, especially at less affluent schools. In their view, many students are taking AP classes before they are ready. Tenth-graders now take AP courses a full three years before they will attend college. This situation can lead to a classroom dilemma for teachers: Either compromise the level of the AP coursework so more students can follow along, or stick to the lesson plan and sacrifice students who may be discouraged and give up, not just on that course but on AP in general?
Northern Virginia has its share of educational challenges, as Loudoun School Board member Thomas Reed acknowledges. “Student growth has placed an enormous stress on our ability to improve class sizes and expand curriculum.” Northern Virginia has become extremely diverse, and experts say that is the region’s greatest educational test, especially with the growing contingent of non-native English speakers into the area.
As is true throughout the country, nearly every high school in the region offers a comprehensive English as a Second Language, or ESL, program—some more than others. Roughly three-quarters of the students Fairfax’s Wakefield High School, for instance, are either Hispanic or African American, and one-sixth of its student body receives ESL support. Even so, last year, the College Board—the nonprofit that administers the SAT and AP programs—gave Wakefield one of its Inspiration Awards for being one of the three most improved schools in the nation.
There isn’t just a language gap, but a race one as well. That’s especially true with respect to test scores, and more specifically SATs. Every school is different and has its own challenges, based on the community outside its door. South Lakes High School, in Reston, and Fairfax High are attempting to increase academic standards in the face of rising threats of gang violence and ebbing SAT scores. At Yorktown High, white students average 1,724 (out of 2,400) on the SAT while the average for their black peers is 1,470, a gap that’s grown over the last 10 years.
Whether anything can be done to close that gap has been subject of expert discussion, analysis and books for years. Meantime, students like Noselli, at Stone Bridge, keep pushing ahead. She hopes to attend either Virginia Tech or Mary Washington, and major in international marketing. And, one day, she wants to be a guest on Oprah. Meantime, she is promoting awareness of traumatic brain injuries, after a friend of hers, Taylor Werner, suffered one six years ago. “Taylor is often isolated by his old friends and peers, and we wanted our school and community to know his story, his daily struggles, and to accept his differences.” That sort of maturity and ambition is increasingly common in high schoolers, and it bodes well for their future—and ours.
This article ran in the print edition with three additional sidebars—see the related links for more on Northern Virginia high schools.