South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

Thomas Jefferson School in Sunset Hills reflects on 78 years of education

There are 80 students from different states, countries

1946 was an exciting year for St. Louis. The Cardinals beat the Boston Red Sox to win their sixth World Series championship and the first known phone call from a car was made. More broadly, World War II had recently ended, the Cold War was brewing, and former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Donald Trump were born. 

1946 was also the year that Thomas Jefferson School was established.

Founded by Charles E. Merrill Jr. – son of a founder of Merrill Lynch, Robin McCoy and Graham Spring, Thomas Jefferson School initially only allowed boys to attend, with both full-time boarding and day school options available. The school became coeducational in 1971, and seventh and eighth grades were added in 1976 and 1981, respectively.

Today, Thomas Jefferson School, 4100 Lindbergh Blvd., ranks as the best college preparatory private school in Missouri and amongst the best in the nation, with a median ACT score of 31, a median SAT score of 1450 and 100% college enrollment.

About 80 students in grades 7-12 from six states and five countries attend Thomas Jefferson, with 40% of the student body boarding. Students who live within a few hours of the school often choose to board five days a week, going home on the weekends, while full-time boarders stay at school all year, barring the four weeks in winter, three weeks in spring, and 12 weeks in summer that TJ is closed for break. 

Eight adults live on campus with the boarding students full-time: the associate head of school, the director of residential life, three resident assistants and two faculty members. There are seven dorms on campus – six freestanding cottage-style buildings named after the color of their exteriors, along with Gables, a building original to the estate built more like a “typical” dorm, with rooms down a hall and a shared bathroom.

“I graduated from Thomas Jefferson myself. Something that I gained, that I don’t know that I realized I gained until I got to college and saw other people not able to deal with it, was just how to maintain a relationship,” Head of School Jane Ballard Roth said. “Say, you know, I get in a fight with my roommate – how do we have an awkward conversation that pushes us through that experience to come out better on the other side?”

Those living in the St. Louis metro area can attend TJ as day students, coming to school in the morning and going home at night, just as they would at a non-boarding school. Unlike at other schools, though, day students have access to a variety of boarding school amenities, including having a desk in a dorm room with their peers to use during the day and the ability to spend the night and eat dinner on campus when appropriate and approved.

“One of my favorite parts about TJ is that all boarding students, and then everyday student above eighth grade, gets a dorm here at TJ,” eighth grader Finn Toolan said. “I think that’s a really cool way to bond with your friends. It’s a really interesting experience to have at, like, a younger age, as you’re learning to be more independent.”

As for academics, Thomas Jefferson School’s curriculum is primarily based on a classical liberal arts approach to education, with short, small, discussion-based classes that encourage the application of the principle rather than memorizing the theoretical. There is a strong emphasis on language – with the school offering Latin, French, Italian and two versions of ancient Greek – and a plethora of unique elective courses catered specifically towards high-ability students.

“I came here because of the academics and the structure of the day, but also just how small the school is because I feel like then you really know everybody. You can start a conversation with anyone, and it makes it not super awkward,” freshman Tate Hall said. “The academics, they’re hard, but there’s also a lot of free time during the day just to laugh with your friends.”

Like most schools, some form of physical education is required. Despite the small student body size, TJ does offer three competitive sports – basketball, soccer and volleyball – each with a boys and girls team. The six teams compete in the Metro Athletic Conference amongst other small, typically religious-based schools from around the state. Students not interested in competing can participate in tennis, yoga or fitness.

When school is not in session on the weekends, boarders do what typical teenagers do: hang out with friends, watch TV, play games, sleep and explore the city. TJ even has an elected group of students, the Student Activity Committee, who plan outings and events for boarders and non-boarders alike. Most recently, a group took a trip to the Wild Bird Sanctuary.

“We do Super Fun Gaming Karaoke Night – that’s what it’s called – and it’s karaoke and games, and as you can guess, it’s super fun. We (also) go to the Fox (Theatre), we go to different plays across the city, the  (St. Louis ) zoo. We plan a bunch of events,” Toolan said. 

A shuttle also comes to the school on Saturday, typically taking boarders to the West County Mall, Target or Pan-Asia Supermarket, per request.

“We are so spoiled as teachers—and we don’t take for granted that we get to work with bright teenagers from all over the U.S. and all over the world who are as excited about learning as we are,” Roth said. “But along with their impressive academic ability, they are just teenagers going through what all teenagers go through. They are gaining self-confidence, learning to manage friendships, trying to exercise the self-discipline necessary to push through their responsibilities so that they can get to the fun stuff.

“It’s a humbling privilege to partner with parents in raising their children,” she continued. “I suppose my word choice there illustrates just how different our approach to education is because of the nature of our school: we are a school, yes, but we also become a second home and second family to day students and boarding students alike.”