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TJ Prepares for New School Year

August 29, 2002

It's a Friday afternoon in August, and the halls of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology are bustling with activity, even though school does not begin for another week and a half.

Most of the commotion is caused by the number of incoming freshmen waiting to talk to their guidance counselors in an attempt to make a change to their class schedule.

In a side hallway, however, two seniors load physics books onto a chart and wheel them to the appropriate classroom. The girls then return to where they started, only to begin the process over again.

"We're helping with getting the room ready for school and passing out the physics books," said Lihn Pham. "I'll be a teaching assistant for Mr. Wallin this year, and he asked me to help out."

Her partner, Renee Willett, however, made the mistake of stopping by to see her counselor unannounced, not knowing incoming freshmen would be monopolizing the counselors all day. Instead, she decided to help her friend.

"I'm looking forward to coming back to school, but I'm not looking forward to graduating," Renee said.

"It's cool to be a senior, but it's also our last year, which is sad. I don't want to leave," Lihn said.

Like most of Fairfax County Public Schools, Jefferson's new school year begins Sept. 3.

"THIS SCHOOL never closes, really," said Elizabeth Lodal, Jefferson's principal. "Most students have to take one or two summer classes."

Jefferson, located in the Alexandria-area of Fairfax County, requires students to earn at least 27 credits for graduation. In addition, seniors are required to complete a science lab and project in order to earn a Jefferson diploma. Fairfax County Public Schools requires students to earn a minimum of 22 credits for a standard high-school diploma and 24 credits for an advanced diploma.

The school is also a Governor's Magnet School that focuses on science and technology. Therefore the student body is made up of residents not only from Fairfax County but also from the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church, and the counties of Arlington, Loudoun, Prince William and Fauquier. The City of Alexandria, said Lodal, is the only one that chooses not to participate in the magnet school.

Transportation is provided to and from the school, requiring a coordinated effort by all the participating jurisdictions to make the 8:30 a.m. start time and 4 p.m. closing bell.

The potential students go through a rigorous application process seeking one of the 450 available freshman slots each year.

Earlier this year, the county School Board changed the enrollment from 420 to include up to an additional 30 students. As a result, 449 students were accepted, bringing the total enrollment 1,672.

In addition, the school will have 14 new teachers, has a teacher returning from a leave of absence, has a new director of student activities and has a new school resource officer.

"Annually, we average 10 to 12 new teachers. This year we had a few more retirements," Lodal said. "We also have many teachers that are close to retirement age."

RIGHT NOW, the focus at the school is the students that will be coming, not the teachers who may soon be going.

"We're preparing for the new students and new freshmen," said Linda Vretos, the head librarian. "I'm involved with freshmen orientation so that they can use the facilities. Then there's taking care of the new teachers, letting them know about the different resources."

Vretos said teachers have already reserved the library during the first week of school, mostly to allow the seniors to get a jump on their required project.

"I look forward to the first day," Vretos said. "It's very nice to start fresh."

Getting a fresh start is also on the mind of English teacher Eric Richardson. Last Friday he was cleaning his room and creating his syllabus.

"I've mapped out the first quarter and the new things I want to do this year," Richardson said. "I always look forward to the new school year. It's exciting to get new kids."

The school has added some programs to help challenge the students, including senior seminar, advanced placement literature and advanced placement government, senior integrated geosystems and English 12, and senior science investigation in neurobiology.

Despite the more stringent academic requirements, the students still find time to participate in a full complement of extracurricular activities.

"The boosters, at one time, created a bumper sticker that read, 'We came for the sports,' Lodal said. "It was a joke, but not anymore."

She points to the boys and girls swim teams, each winning the state championship this past year. She said no other school in Virginia has had both teams win simultaneously. She also said the arts programs have a strong following.

"There are sacrifices the kids and parents make. Leaving your neighborhood and your friends. The students are taking a risk by coming to a school where you don't know anybody," Lodal said. "But this a comprehensive high school. The students don't have to make sacrifices as far as activities and academics. They can take whatever students do at a regular high school."