Fairfax County schools' roundup of prestigious National Merit Scholarship winners would look downright ordinary if it weren't for one giant ace in the hole: Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.
Students from the powerhouse "TJ" magnet, consistently ranked as the top public high school in the nation, earned 64 of the foundation's awards in 2010 -- twice the number earned by all other Fairfax students countywide.
TJ has about 1,800 students. The county overall has about 54,000 high school students.
Westfield High School in Chantilly earned second-place honors for the county with awards going to five students. Fifteen high schools, of Fairfax's 21 total, had four winners or fewer.
In Montgomery County, the accolades were spread a bit more evenly, but not much.
Students at Silver Spring's Montgomery Blair High School won about one-third of the district's awards -- 22 of the county's 70 overall. Blair earned the honors almost exclusively on the strength of its math, science and technology magnet program.
The runner-up in the county was Rockville's Richard Montgomery High, which boasts a popular and highly competitive International Baccalaureate magnet program. "RM" students earned 15 of the county's cache of scholarships. Nearby Thomas Wootton High students earned 10 scholarships. Nine other high schools, of 25 overall, had six or fewer winners.
The National Merit corporation awards four types of scholarships, all based initially on a high score on the preliminary SAT, usually taken in a student's sophomore year. Of the more than 8,000 scholarships, some are open to all students, some have specific corporate or college sponsorship, and some are available only to black students.
While National Merit scholarships are among the most prestigious awarded nationwide, at $2,500 they are hardly the most lucrative. Montgomery's class of 2010 earned an astounding $232 million in scholarships, according to the school system.
That figure "amounts to an immediate 10 percent return on the money that Montgomery County spends on education," said schools Superintendent Jerry Weast. "But the positive impact ... will last for generations."