Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology: It takes a corporation to raise a great school

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology tops US News public high schools list with a little corporate help.

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    In 2001, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori (right) speaks with 12th grade students at their biotech class during a visit at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. The school has topped US News and World Reports list of the best American public high schools for the third year in a row thanks in part to strong corporate support.
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Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, take a bow. In each of the the three years US News and World Reports has ranked public high schools, "TJ," as it's known locally, has come out on top.

While a rigorous admissions test administered to students from some of America's wealthiest households keeps student quality high, the school has another great advantage: deep relationships with corporations and the public sector.

"TJ is a national treasure," says Gary Bottorff, director of corporate and community relations for the school's foundation. "What makes it unique is the fact that the business community had a big hand in establishing the curriculum" at the school's founding in 1985.

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That early business involvement is paying off today. Students can enter "mentorship" arrangements with groups from Lockheed Martin Corp. to the US Naval Research Laboratory to Georgetown University Hospital. For 180 hours a term, students get hands-on experience in places that most students — public or otherwise — see as career destinations or top-rung college research experiences. Students spend three days a week conducting experiments away from the school's Arlington, Va., campus and can, in some cases, continue their research back at the school in one of its 13 labs.

Because the school district does not fund TJ above and beyond what other schools receive, Mr. Bottorff says the school needs between $750,000 and $1 million per year to maintain its extensive offerings. Corporations have come to the rescue.

The roster of those who have plowed resources into TJ is stacked with technology and engineering heavies. Google, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and Sun Microsystems have all received the school's "Tommy" award for donating technologies, cash, and supplies.

And how many public high schools do you know that can claim a gift over half a million dollars? TJ can, with a donation from supercomputer firm Cray Inc. Then there are a host of smaller gifts between $10,000 and $50,000 from firms like PricewaterhouseCoopers, ExxonMobil, and Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC).

(Along these lines, how many other public schools take stock donations?)

The school's list of pressing needs suggests that it's costly to maintain a world-class high school. From a $30,000 lathe that's tops on the list to a $110,000 gas chromatography-mass spectrometer, the school's wish list totals over $826,000 on 72 items.

And world-class is no exaggeration, Bottorff explains.

"We had 3,000 visitors to our school from all parts of the world last year," he says. This year, guests have included the deputy premier of China, whose interest was in "trying to figure out what we’re doing and trying to duplicate the process."

It's good to be king. But it's also expensive. And that's where corporate friends come in.

See also:

America's best public high schools (US News and World Reports)

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David Grant is a Monitor correspondent. Check us out on Twitter.

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