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Aging research labs inside and two dozen tired-looking trailers outside seem misaligned with Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology’s reputation of being America’s best high school, a title it has captured in the U.S. News & World Report ranking five straight years.

For more than a decade, the disconnect between student achievement and subpar facilities has been an eye-popping at the school, which serves as the governor’s school for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Each year Thomas Jefferson admits about 480 students for its freshman class. Students take an admissions exam, as well as submit letters of recommendation, while vying for admittance.

Designed in 1964, Thomas Jefferson was a regular school until it was converted into a governor’s school in 1985. The facility has received minor renovations during the years but no major overhaul, according to school system staff.

“The classrooms are the same, they have the same windows, the same doors,” said Kevin Sneed, director of Design and Construction Services. “Someone who went to school there in the 1960s would still recognize it.”

That soon will change. Beginning next year, the school will receive about $88.9 million in renovations and additions, making it the most expensive construction project Fairfax County Public Schools has taken on, according to the Design and Construction Services department.

“On a complicated meter, this is probably going to be No. 1 because of what we’re trying to accomplish there with [the school’s] unique programming,” Sneed said. “This is not going to be an easy project… we’re going to have to reshape the building to fit their programming.”

The goal is to match Thomas Jefferson’s focus on STEM curricula with communal spaces within the school.

Sneed said planning for the design of the school is wrapping up. The project is scheduled to be bid during the winter holiday season in 2012-13.

Renovation plans include adding 120,000 square feet to the 265,000-square-foot building. Much of this added space will be used to eliminate the need for trailers. The renovations should take about 30 months, Kevin Sneed said.

Funding for construction will be provided by the 2011 bond referendum, which will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Principal Evan Glazer breaks down the strategy for achieving this into four phases.

“The strategy would be to add a two-story research wing at the front of the building so people can see very quickly what the students and teachers are working on,” he said, adding he wants visitors to the school to know immediately the high school is a science and technology-focused facility.

“We have that already built into our curriculum, but we don’t have that visibly [with the current school facility],” Glazer said. “I think the new design … is really going to make the flow of the building align with what we do already.”

The second part of the strategy is to get rid of the trailers by adding more space inside, which will be aided by the addition of the 120,000 square feet, Glazer said.

Creating learning spaces in communal areas is the third part of construction plans, he said.

“Right now when students have a group project to work on they have a tendency to spill out in hallways,” Glazer said. “In essence, we’re transforming the hallways into learning spaces … In a typical school design — at least circa 1964 — you basically have classroom spaces and then halls connecting them. This [plan] is different because we’ll have a series of common areas all around the building.”

Glazer said when he explains the design plans to others, the response often is the plans sound more like a building found on a college campus rather than a high school.

In a way, he said, that is true.

“We’re trying to use every space inside our facility,” Glazer said.

Thomas Jefferson is one of eight schools nicknamed legacy schools because they have received no major overhaul renovation. Two of these schools —Marshall and Edison — are being renovated. The hope is to have the remaining five schools — Falls Church, Herndon, Oakton, Langley and West Springfield, as well as Thomas Jefferson — renovated by 2020, Sneed said.

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com