Going Public

Arlington’s public school system offers a wealth of options for students, but navigating the choices can be dizzying. Here are some pointers.

Dominion Hills resident Kristin Murphy remembers feeling completely bewildered when, four years ago, it came time to decide where to send her kids to elementary school. For friends who lived elsewhere, the process of signing up for public school seemed fairly simple. But in Arlington, the choices were legion. “It is so, so confusing,” says Murphy, who considered both Ashlawn Elementary (her neighborhood school) and nearby Barrett Elementary (which, at the time, was an option for students in her neighborhood) before finally applying to Arlington Traditional School for her twin daughter and son.

Murphy is not the only parent to feel overwhelmed by Arlington’s robust educational landscape. With 22 public elementary schools, five middle schools, three high schools and one secondary program (serving grades 6-12) in a county measuring just 26 square miles, families have many choices to consider—even if they are not thinking about private schools. Should you stick with your neighborhood school or try for a countywide program? Can your kid really handle learning math and science in Spanish? Which schools hold lotteries and how do they work? What if your child wins a coveted spot at a choice school and is miserable once he or she gets there?

For answers to these and other school questions, we asked local parents, school administrators and teachers to weigh in with their own perspectives and personal experiences. The Arlington Public Schools (APS) website is another helpful resource.

Choosing an elementary school seems overwhelming. What’s the first step?

If you’re the parent or guardian of a rising kindergartner, be sure to attend APS' countywide kindergarten information night on Monday, Jan. 28, at Washington-Lee High School (snow date is Feb. 4). The program includes presentations from school officials and parents, followed by an information fair, during which you can visit the booths of individual schools and ask questions. Note, however, that tables for popular schools such as Arlington Science Focus and Arlington Traditional quickly get mobbed, so don’t expect to get much face time with the principals of those schools.

The critical takeaway from this event is the parent handbook for elementary school registration, which includes required paperwork and key dates for information sessions at individual schools. If you're unsure about where you might want to register your child, write those dates on your calendar now. While some schools welcome informal visits from prospective parents, others strongly prefer that you attend their scheduled orientations. These sessions typically include a presentation, a tour of the building, classroom visits and a Q&A with school administrators. “At first it seems like a lot, but once you start seeing schools, it becomes easier,” says Gladis Bourdouane, APS’ communications coordinator for family engagement.

What’s the process for applying to a choice elementary school?

If you want to send your child to a school other than your neighborhood school, you will need to attend information sessions at both the choice school and your neighborhood school. Why? Your transfer application must be signed by administrators at both places. And here’s a tip: even if you are on the fence about a particular school, get the transfer form signed anyway. As the elementary schools’ April 15 deadline for transfer applications gets closer, their principals will get busier and busier, making it harder to obtain those required signatures.

Can my child go to any school in the county?

Not exactly. While Arlington has more choices than the average school system, some choice schools are open only to kids in a particular geographic zone. Rising enrollment in recent years has also made some schools less accessible than they used to be. So while APS policy allows students to attend neighborhood schools that are not their own, the odds of getting such transfers approved have diminished. Many schools that have approached or surpassed 95 percent capacity no longer have room for out-of-boundary transfers.

To determine whether your child has a shot at a specific school, attend an information session or meet with a school administrator about your situation. You can also contact APS communications coordinator Bourdouane at 703-228-7667 or gladis.bourdouane@apsva.us.

Can my child apply to more than one choice school?

Yes. Just keep in mind that you will need to submit a separate signed transfer application to ea*ch school you are interested in.

How complicated is the transfer application?

It’s a one-page form that asks for your student’s name, age and other basics such as home address and parents’ contact information. Schools often have the forms available at their information sessions. You can also find them online at www.apsva.us/page/3005.

Will I need to take time off work to get this done?

Probably. While some schools (such as Claremont, Key and Campbell) offer evening or weekend information sessions, others schedule them only during school hours.

 

Illustration by Paul HostetlerIs the application process similar for middle and high school?

Yes, but the timelines are different. APS hosts a county-wide high school information night each year in October, and a middle school night in November (2013 dates to be determined), after which individual schools host their own orientations in November, December and January. As with the elementary process, parents must attend sessions at both their neighborhood school and any choice schools they are considering, in order to get their child’s transfer applications signed. Applications may be submitted between the first Monday in November and the third Friday in January. The application deadline for the 2013-2014 school year is Jan. 18, 2013.

What’s the deal with lotteries?

Some choice schools, such as Arlington Traditional and H-B Woodlawn, routinely rely on lotteries to determine their student populations, because they always have more applications than spots. Other schools hold lotteries only when applications exceed the number of spaces they have available. If you enter a lottery but don’t get a spot, your child will be placed on a waiting list. You will be notified when a space becomes available (whether it’s over the summer or two years later)—at which point you can accept or decline.

Which school has the most complicated lottery process?

H-B Woodlawn conducts two lotteries every year: one for its entering sixth-grade class; and another to fill any ninth-grade seats that have become available. But not all seats are open to all student applicants. H-B slots are proportionately allocated by neighborhood school, based on the number of fifth-graders in each zone in any given year. This translates into only a handful of spots per zone, making the lottery process a nail-biter for students and parents. Unlike other choice schools that offer preference to incoming students who already have a sibling at the school, H-B does not adhere to this policy. All applicants must enter the lottery, without exception.

What is H-B Woodlawn? Do students really call teachers by their first names?

Yes, they really do. H-B is Arlington’s only secondary program, which means it covers grades 6 through 12. Founded in 1971, it offers students more freedom in selecting classes and structuring their day. Students also play a role in governing the school through a weekly town meeting that facilitates decisions about staffing, spending of parent-raised funds, school rules and more. It’s an unconventional philosophy (one that's prompted the nickname “Hippie High”) that appeals to many local parents and kids. “Because rules are more flexible, I’ve had two daughters who have been allowed to graduate from high school one year early,” says Maria Oaxaca Velikonja, an H-B parent since 2000. “Getting an early start in life was a tremendous benefit.” But unconventional doesn’t mean “easy”—the school has been nationally recognized for its high academic expectations and student achievements.

Should I worry about boundary changes?

School officials have told Arlington parents to expect widespread boundary changes as new schools and additions are built to accommodate rising enrollment. The first will go into effect in the fall of 2015. Ashlawn, Glebe, Jamestown, McKinley, Nottingham, Taylor and Tuckahoe are expected to be the first elementary schools affected as the schools division’s $474 million capital improvement plan, which was approved in May, gets under way. The school board will hear recommendations for new boundaries—including proposals for accommodating existing students at their current schools—in February and March of this year.

Just keep in mind that timelines and school policies can shift. Danielle Werchowski, a Radnor Heights mom whose son is a fourth-grader at Drew Model school, cautions fellow parents not to contort their lives around worries that may or may not come to fruition. “Don’t go into [the school decision process] thinking that there’s not going to be any change,” she says. “Places change. Principals change. Teachers change. Students change. Boundaries change. You make the best decisions you can at the time, and it’s a matter of re-evaluating them from time to time.”

When should I start researching schools?

You don’t need to begin until the year before your child enters elementary, middle or high school, although some parents suggest getting a head start by attending the countywide information sessions a year earlier. “I spent the first year familiarizing myself with the process and the options, and the second year making decisions,” says Karolina Walker, an Arlington Heights mom whose daughter attended their neighborhood school (Patrick Henry) and then entered H-B Woodlawn as a sixth-grader.

Will I learn everything I need to know at the information nights or school presentations?

It depends on how much information you need to make a decision. “What I don’t like about the information nights is that there’s not a lot of differentiation among the schools,” says Arlington Forest dad Stephen Goldman, whose kids go to Washington-Lee and H-B Woodlawn. In addition to attending school orientations, Goldman visited the APS website to compare school metrics such as college acceptance rates, dropout rates, test scores and disciplinary stats. “You need to dig for the information that is important to you,” he says.

How important are test scores?

Some parents view test scores as a key indicator of a school’s excellence. Others disagree. “I would advise parents to avoid fixating on SOL [Standards of Learning] tests,” says Cherrydale parent Denise Parks, referring to the Virginia statewide academic exams that begin in third grade and continue through high school. “SOL results are not indicative of a better school,” believes Parks, whose daughters currently attend Washington-Lee and Thomas Jefferson Middle. “ Some schools spend months preparing for the SOLs instead of spending time enriching our children’s education. Some schools have more children where English is their second language. Some schools have a greater number of affluent families where weekly tutors are the norm.”

What if my kids want to go to different schools?

If you can handle the logistics, you’ll be in good company with parents like Jeanne Sweeney, a Donaldson Run resident and a mother of three.“When [my son’s] number came up at H-B, he shadowed with a friend and made the decision to attend instantly,” she says, noting that he liked the interactive nature of the classes, the school’s town meeting model, and electives in music and theater. Her daughter also won a spot at H-B through the lottery, but opted to go to Yorktown instead. “She found the pond [at H-B] a little too small,” Sweeney says. “Yorktown offered a bigger smorgasbord of activities.”

 

How can I find out what a school’s culture is really like?

Talk to friends, neighbors, teachers, relatives and colleagues—but keep in mind that perceptions vary. What might be a good fit for someone else’s family might not work for yours. Visit the schools you’re considering and observe as many classrooms and grade levels as possible (not just the excitable, eager-to-please kindergartners, if you’re an elementary school parent). How engaged are the students in learning? Does the classroom environment seem like a good fit for your child? While the elementary curriculum is the same for all APS schools, the style of delivery—how that information is taught or conveyed—can vary from one school to the next, based on its educational philosophy and approach.

Are choice schools better than neighborhood schools?

Not necessarily. It all depends on the type of environment that’s best for your kid. “It’s easy to think less of a school that has no ‘selection’ process, but I think people cheat themselves by not trying out [their neighborhood schools],” says Bridget Ryan, a Cherrydale mom whose four kids have attended both choice and neighborhood schools, depending on their educational needs and interests. “Every year in Arlington has impressed me,” she says. “The teachers are dedicated and engaged. The resources are quality.”

I’m afraid my child won’t have any friends in the neighborhood if we go to a choice school.

That’s a legitimate concern, even among parents who love their choice schools. “Playdates are a bummer,” says Jamie Odeneal, who lives in Lacey Forest and sends her older daughter to Claremont Immersion School. Few of her daughter’s pals live within walking distance, she says.

Some choice schools maintain different hours from neighborhood schools, which can affect socializing—particularly if a child comes home to find that his friends on the street have already finished all of their homework.

Still, there are plenty of ways for choice school students to stay connected to the neighbors. Kristin Murphy, whose twins are now in third grade at ATS, leads the Brownie troop at Ashlawn (her daughter is a member). “We have relationships with a lot of [kids] in the neighborhood, so when we go to the pool, Mia’s not left out because she doesn’t know anyone,” she says. “Plus, it’s a great way for me to keep in touch with what is happening at Ashlawn.”

Should I bring my kid along when I visit elementary schools?

Better to get a sitter. The information sessions tend to be crowded and oriented toward parents, not kids. Many elementary schools have summer playdates or open houses that are kid-friendly to make new students feel more comfortable.

Should I bring my kid along when I visit prospective middle or high schools?

Yes. “Think hard about what you want for your child, and involve them in that decision,” urges Swanson Middle Principal Bridget Loft, whose own son is in sixth grade at Thomas Jefferson. “So often we say, ‘What do you know? You’re 10.’ I think we are too quick to write kids off. Keep an open mind about what they say they want, but at the same time, do your research as a parent.”

I’d like to send my child to a neighborhood school, but I’ve got concerns about ours.

If you’re worried, visit the school (keeping in mind that you’ll need your child’s transfer application signed anyway if you decide to apply to a choice school). You might be surprised by what you find. “Don’t let the perceptions you have dictate the decisions you make, because you could be missing out on a well-hidden secret,” says Kimberley Graves, principal of Hoffman-Boston, who is overseeing the challenged elementary school’s transition to a science, math, engineering and technology emphasis. “Meet with the principal. Talk to the teachers. Walk in the halls. Get a sense of whether it is a safe and comfortable place where you can leave your child. You can learn a lot from a website, but you can’t get the feeling of whether your child will be safe, cared for and educated.”

Diversity is important to me. Which schools are the most multicultural?

Racial and economic diversity varies greatly from one Arlington school to the next, be it a choice school or a neighborhood school. Some schools look like a gathering of the United Nations, while others are primarily white. The same is true when it comes to household incomes: at some schools, half the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches; while at other schools, virtually no one does. APS’ statistics page is a good resource. Click on “student race (civil rights statistics)” for a school-by-school breakdown of the ethnicities of each student population. For information about a school’s economic profile, visit the same page and click on “free and reduced lunch” to get a feel for the relative affluence of its student body. Remember that a diverse school may address its challenges with more creative teaching to reach a variety of students.

Our child does best with hands-on learning. What are some elementary school options?

If you live in the Jamestown/Taylor/Key/Science Focus attendance area, you can always apply to Arlington Science Focus. Depending on where you live and how you feel about transporting your child to school, other options are: Barrett, which has a partnership with NASA; Campbell, which bases its approach on Outward Bound’s model of experience-based learning; or Drew’s elementary Montessori program. Hoffman-Boston is also transitioning to an inquiry-based science-technology-engineering-math focus that encourages learning through experiments and questioning. You should also ask teachers and administrators at your neighborhood school about opportunities for hands-on learning. They might offer exactly what you want for your child.

What if my child gets into a choice school and is unhappy there?

You can always go back to your neighborhood school. Many families end up doing so for a variety of social or academic reasons. Sometimes English-speaking students (and their parents) at immersion schools begin to struggle in the higher grades as the academic content and homework get more complex. “Once we hit third grade, it was too hard for us to help without knowing Spanish,” says Bridget Ryan, whose oldest daughter started in Key’s language-immersion program, but later transferred to Glebe. “She did a science paper on dolphins, and we couldn’t even proofread it.”

I’ve done my research and I still feel paralyzed.

At the end of the day, trust your gut. “I think in Arlington we overthink our decisions,” says Glencarlyn resident Leslie Mead, whose sons attend Kenmore and Washington-Lee. “’What is the best school? I don’t think we need to think in those terms here.”

APS’ Gladis Bourdouane agrees. No matter which school you choose, she says, “You cannot make a bad choice.”

 

Meet the Schools

Elementary Schools

Abingdon Elementary
Type: Neighborhood school
Students: 548
Notable: Creative instruction featuring classes in architecture and communications, including moviemaking.
Diversity: 43% Hispanic
Economics: 50% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch.

Arlington Science Focus
Type: Choice school open to students who live in Jamestown, Key and Taylor school zones.
Students: 577
Notable: Inquiry-based approach that integrates science and the scientific method into a variety of subject areas. Shares boundaries with Key.
Diversity: 56% white
Economics: 19% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch.

Arlington Traditional
Type: Choice school open to students who live anywhere in Arlington County.
Students: 498
Notable: Nationally recognized school emphasizing academics, behavior and character.  
Diversity: 59% white
Economics: 19% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch.

Ashlawn Elementary
Type: Neighborhood school
Students: 533
Notable: Started its Global Citizenship Project in 2008, which explores cultures around the world and the environment.
Diversity: 61% white
Economics: 19% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch.

Barcroft Elementary
Type: Neighborhood school with year-round schedule
Students: 481
Notable: Modified school-year schedule. School’s da Vinci Project integrates academic content with studio art and writing enrichment.
Diversity: 52% Hispanic
Economics: 61% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch.

Barrett Elementary
Type: Neighborhood school, open on space-available basis to students who live in attendance zones for Ashlawn, Glebe, Long Branch, McKinley, Nottingham and Tuckahoe.
Students: 558
Notable: NASA Explorer school with a special focus on science and math.
Diversity: 44% Hispanic
Economics: 52% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch.

Campbell Elementary
Type: Choice school with preference for students in neighborhoods zoned for Abingdon, Barcroft, Carlin Springs, Patrick Henry, Hoffman-Boston, Oakridge and Randolph.
Students: 415
Notable: Expeditionary learning model emphasizes hands-on activities and interdisciplinary learning across subject areas. Grades K-1 are taught in same classroom, with grade-based groups for math and reading. Recently dedicated its new wetlands learning laboratory.
Diversity: 43% Hispanic
Economics: 57% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch.

Carlin Springs Elementary
Type: Neighborhood school
Students: 591
Notable: Community-based school that supports students and their families with computer classes, parenting workshops and health resources.
Diversity: 70% Hispanic
Economics: 85% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch.

Claremont Immersion School
Type: Spanish-immersion school with preference for students whose neighborhood school is Abingdon, Hoffman-Boston or Oakridge.
Students: 677
Notable: Opened in 2003 to satisfy demand for dual-language instruction. Students split the day between a Spanish-speaking classroom and an English-speaking classroom, with math and science typically taught in Spanish.
Diversity: 51% Hispanic
Economics: 35% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch.

Drew Model
Type: Neighborhood school that also houses Arlington County’s elementary Montessori program.
Students: 630
Notable: Roughly one-third of its students attend Drew’s Montessori program.
Diversity: 35% African-American
Economics: 55% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch.

Glebe Elementary
Type: Neighborhood school
Students: 554
Notable: Its S.M.A.R.T. project combines science and math instruction with art, music, dance and theater.
Diversity: 59% white
Economics: 21% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch.

Patrick Henry Elementary
Type: Neighborhood school
Students: 434
Notable: Emphasizes community service and service learning through its “Helping Hands” project.
Diversity: 37% white
Economics: 44% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch.

Hoffman-Boston Elementary
Type: Neighborhood school
Students: 405
Notable: Transitioning to a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) focus.
Diversity: 38% African-American
Economics: 65% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch.

Jamestown Elementary
Type: Neighborhood school
Students: 627
Notable: Chosen as a “distinguished program” by Apple for its innovative use of technology in the classroom. Wellness program teaches students how to make healthy meals and brings farmers and fresh produce to school lunchroom on Fridays.
Diversity: 85% white
Economics: 2% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch.

Key
Type: Spanish-immersion school option for students whose neighborhood school is Jamestown, Taylor or Arlington Science Focus
Students: 664
Notable: Arlington County’s first Spanish-immersion elementary school; established in 1986. Has the same school boundaries as Arlington Science Focus.
Diversity: 52% Hispanic
Economics: 37% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch.

Long Branch Elementary
Type: Neighborhood school
Students: 494
Notable: Serves a diverse, international student population living in North Arlington, South Arlington and Fort Myer.
Diversity: 55% white
Economics: 26% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch.

McKinley Elementary
Type: Neighborhood school
Students: 561
Notable: School-wide Kaleidoscope Project integrates arts and academics in the classroom.
Diversity: 72% white
Economics: 9% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch.

Nottingham Elementary
Type: Neighborhood school
Students: 660
Notable: Students learn writing and publishing through “Knight Writer” project led by a published children’s book author.
Diversity: 84% white
Economics: 2% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch.

Oakridge Elementary
Type: Neighborhood school
Students: 664
Notable: MOSAIC initiative teaches reading while presenting students with children’s books and stories highlighting different countries and cultures.
Diversity: 44% white
Economics: 27% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch.

Randolph Elementary
Type: Neighborhood school with magnet program
Students: 425
Notable: Offers the International Baccalaureate (IB) Primary Years Programme, which encourages problem-solving. Serves as an alternative option for Barcroft families who don’t want a year-round school schedule.
Diversity: 53% Hispanic
Economics: 74% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch.

Taylor Elementary
Type: Neighborhood school
Students: 742
Notable: Large school that offers a “small school” experience. Currently enhancing its science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) instruction and offerings.
Diversity: 81% white
Economics: 5% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch.

Tuckahoe Elementary
Type: Neighborhood school
Students: 665
Notable: School’s Discovery Schoolyard serves as an outdoor classroom for teaching students about plant and insect life cycles, animal habitats, the environment and other concepts.
Diversity: 83% white
Economics: 1% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch.

 

Middle Schools

Gunston Middle
Type: Neighborhood school with magnet programs
Students: 741
Notable: Offers middle-school Montessori and Spanish-immersion programs.
Diversity: 39% Hispanic
Economics: 39% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch

H-B Woodlawn Secondary
Type: Choice secondary program open to all Arlington County students. Admission based on geographic lottery.
Students: 625 in grades 6 through 12
Notable: Emphasizes self-directed learning, student responsibility and collective decision making. No sports teams; athletes participate in sports through their neighborhood school.
Diversity: 65% white
Economics: 16% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch.

Thomas Jefferson Middle
Type: Neighborhood school with a magnet program
Students: 784
Notable: Offers International Baccalaureate (IB) program for middle-schoolers.
Diversity: 34% Hispanic
Economics: 46% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch.

Kenmore Middle
Type: Neighborhood school with an arts and communication technology emphasis
Students: 759
Notable: Belongs to Kennedy Center partnership that integrates education and the arts. Campus proposed to include new elementary school.
Diversity: 46% Hispanic
Economics: 53% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch.

Swanson Middle
Type: Neighborhood school
Students: 970
Notable: Founded in 1940. Emphasizes service to others; students gather food and make meals for local food banks, collect books for kids in the hospital and more.
Diversity: 63% white
Economics: 15% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch.

Williamsburg Middle
Type: Neighborhood school
Students: 965
Notable: Founded in 1955. Campus proposed to include new elementary school. Projected to grow to 1,277 students by 2017.
Diversity: 70% white
Economics: 13% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch.

High Schools

H-B Woodlawn Secondary
(see Middle Schools)

Wakefield High
Type: Neighborhood school with magnet programs
Students: 1,435
Notable: School’s AP Network offers academic support and more to diverse students taking Advanced Placement courses. Named one of Newsweek’s top high schools in the country in 2010. Offers county’s Spanish-immersion program.
Diversity: 46% Hispanic
Economics: 48% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch

Washington-Lee High
Type: Neighborhood school with IB magnet program.
Students: 1,973
Notable: Offers International Baccalaureate program in addition to Advanced Placement courses. Named one of Newsweek’s top high schools in the country in 2010. Opened in the 1920s with 600 students.
Diversity: 41% white
Economics: 30% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch

Yorktown High
Type: Neighborhood school
Students: 1,753
Notable: Adopted a dual focus on academics and social/emotional learning in 1999. Strong athletic teams. Named one of Newsweek’s top high schools in the country in 2010. Opened in 1960.
Diversity: 64% white
Economics: 13% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch

Sources: Arlington Public Schools statistics on enrollment (Nov. 2012), free and reduced lunches (Nov. 2012), and diversity (Oct. 2012); individual school web sites; interviews.

A Note on Neighboring School Districts

There are many excellent public schools to be found just over the Arlington County line, although public school choice is not as much of an issue in Falls Church and McLean.

Falls Church City Public Schools

“It couldn’t be more different in Falls Church,” says Beth C. Green, whose two children are enrolled in the city’s tiny public school system. “There’s so much choice in Arlington. Here we have one of everything.”

Kindergartners start at Mount Daniel, a primary school that serves just kindergartners and first-graders. Mount Daniel students then move to Thomas Jefferson Elementary, which houses second-, third-, fourth-, and—starting next year—fifth-graders. The city has just one middle school, Mary Ellen Henderson, which will welcome grades six through eight next year; and one high school, George Mason, which will cover grades nine through 12 in 2013-2014.

Why all the grade shifts? Rising enrollment. As in Arlington, the school-age population is growing in Falls Church City, which this fall welcomed a district-record-breaking 901 students at George Mason High. The city is dealing with the issue by rebalancing grades across its four schools and is spending $5 million to renovate and expand Thomas Jefferson Elementary.

Even as it has grown, FCCPS has maintained a strong academic reputation, offering the International Baccalaureate Programme at both the elementary and high school level. “To have this in such a small school system is exceptional,” says Laura Dixon, who researched local schools extensively before her family relocated to Falls Church City from Ohio in 2007.  

Fairfax County Public Schools

With more than 181,000 students in nearly 200 schools, Fairfax County’s school system dwarfs those of Arlington County and Falls Church City. But Fairfax does that to a lot of places; it’s the largest schools division in the state and the 11th biggest in the country.

Fairfax County offers fewer choice schools, although students who have been identified as “gifted” have access to a full-day advanced academic placement (AAP) curricula, which is taught at designated AAP “center” schools, as well as many neighborhood schools. These specially enriched AAP programs start in the third grade. Elementary students typically attend their neighborhood school until that point and then transfer to an AAP center school only if desired (and if they qualify). For more on Fairfax’s AAP offerings, visit www.fcps.edu/is/aap/index.shtml.

Skipping ahead to high school, Fairfax County is home to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a nationally known magnet school with a highly competitive admissions process. With a student population of about 1,850, the school offers technology labs for aerospace sciences, robotics, chemical analysis, computer-assisted design, computer systems and more. Who can apply? Students who live in Arlington, Falls Church City, Fairfax City, Fairfax, Fauquier, Loudoun and Prince William. For more information on the admissions process, visit www.tjhsst.edu/abouttj/admissions.

JEB High School in Falls Church (part of Fairfax County Public Schools) also offers the International Baccalaureate Programme.

Alison Rice graduated from a private school in Minneapolis, but thinks she would have had a hard time choosing between Wakefield's Spanish Immersion program and Washington-Lee's IB program had she gone to high school in Arlington.

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