Meandering down the hallways of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the magnet school's principal Elizabeth V. Lodal peeks into a biotechnology class.
The students, she notes, are conducting cutting-edge research into human genome sequencing.
In a nearby empty classroom, she points to a tiny octopus floating in a fish tank. "In this school, even the octopus is gifted," she said. "He's figured out how to open bottles we drop in there. He's so smart."
Down the hall, Lodal stops by a computer lab where a few students are spending their lunchtime writing programs and playing games. One student dozes quietly in an armchair. Another munches on a hamburger while surfing the Internet. In a corner, two teenagers sword fight with toy light sabers.
Toward the rear of the lab, a gathering of computer science students giggle as they watch a film they produced earlier that morning. In the short film, a student wearing a Windows XP t-shirt enters a Linux computer lab, infecting its machines with a "virus." Two other students in yellow bio-hazard suits rush to the rescue, chasing the virus out.
"These kids work hard and they play hard," Lodal said.
As principal of the highly selective Fairfax County high school, Lodal has led TJ through some of its proudest accomplishments and most difficult trials.
Now, after six years at the school's helm, Lodal, 62, is retiring.
"It's been pretty neat," said Lodal. "This is a high school that is known throughout the world. I like to think that we've made a difference."
Lodal will be missed, as she is seen as the school's "greatest fan" and has remained focused on TJ's mission to produce the nation's top science, math and engineering students, said PTSA President Debbie Kilpatrick, a Clifton resident.
"She always believed in what TJ stands for," Kilpatrick said. "She is a true educator."
FOR LODAL, the high point of her tenure at TJ came last November, when the school hosted a live link with the crew of International Space Station Expedition 12.
As thousands of high school students around the country watched via video, Jefferson students conversed in English and Russian with astronauts William McArthur and Valery Ivanovich Tokarev.
"That was a pretty amazing bookend to my career here," Lodal said.
The low point of her tenure, she said, was the rancorous tone of a 2004 debate over the lack of minority students at TJ.
That year, the Fairfax County School Board implemented changes to the school's admissions process with the goal of increasing the number of black and Hispanic students. As the School Board pondered affirmative action, the school's student body was 1.1 percent black and 2.4 percent Hispanic.
Opponents to the admissions' overhaul fretted that allowing in more minorities would lower TJ's standards, an assertion Lodal said was "downright insulting."
"In many ways, the whole tenor of the debate was mean," she said. "Our African-American and Hispanic students were targeted by newspaper articles and public testimony. There was this idea that we were somehow lowering our standards by pushing for diversity — that's just insulting. Maybe the critics were just clueless, but in many cases I think they were mean spirited."
The continuing lack of minority representation will be a key challenge for Lodal's successor. Despite the 2004 admissions changes, the school's incoming freshman class is 1.97 percent black and 3.55 percent Hispanic.
"This is an issue for every selective school in the nation. Ours just happens to make the front page of the newspaper," Lodal said. "But it's important to remember: No group has a corner on giftedness."
REFLECTING on her time at TJ, Lodal said her proudest moment came in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and on the Pentagon, only moments away from TJ's campus.
During those dark days following the attacks, U.S. embassies throughout the Middle East closed down schools for American children. The U.S. embassy in Islamabad asked TJ to develop a "virtual school" to allow American students in Pakistan to continue their studies via the Internet.
Like many people after the attacks, TJ students had been clamoring for a way they could help. They threw themselves into their assignment, pulling together donated software from Blackboard, Inc., and contributed computers.
After two weeks of working around the clock, the TJ students had produced an on-line educational infrastructure for the Pakistan schools.
Now, in partnership with the U.S. State Department, TJ's virtual school system serves as the emergency back-up plan for American schools around the world, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Israel, Bosnia and elsewhere.
In 2003, the State Department sent Lodal to a conference in New Delhi to meet principals who had relied on the virtual school during times of crisis.
"Several of them nearly broke down," Lodal said. "They told us that the virtual school not only kept them connected, but that it's actually saved lives. It was their only reliable source of information for parents, teachers, students and administrators. That's a pretty remarkable thing for an American high school to do."
WHEN LODAL'S successor is chosen later this month, he or she will find TJ at a crossroads, faculty members said.
As the school was founded in 1985, many of the original teachers are beginning to retire. Attracting top-tier educators will grow increasingly important.
"This is a huge time of transition," said Shane Torbert, a computer science and math teacher. "I'm a bit worried about our future."
During Lodal's tenure, the school has enjoyed remarkable successes. Its 1,750 students boast the nation's highest average SAT score of 1480 (out of 1600). In 2005 and 2006, TJ led the world in total number of Advanced Placement credits earned and was the top high school in the country for the most National Merit Semifinalists.
But TJ's outdated facilities threaten the school's academic perch, Lodal warned.
Built in 1966 to accommodate 1,600 students, TJ's facilities will grow increasingly crowded as the student body grows to an estimated 1,921 in 2010, according to Fairfax County Public Schools enrollment data.
Overcrowding, Lodal said, could soon require the nation's top math and science students to be taught in trailers rather than high-tech labs.
"We've got an ugly old building that isn't meeting our needs," Lodal said.
James Rose, a physics teacher who has taught at TJ for 21 years, said the school's next principal will need Lodal's political sense and ability to support new ideas amongst the faculty and student body.
"We're going to miss her," Rose said. "But she certainly deserves her retirement."